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09/21/2005 - Larry Turman's Thoughts (No. 6)

I differentiate between story and plot, although sometimes they are one and the same. For me, story is nearly always about character and character change, whereas plot are the events to illustrate, dramatize and serve the story. Walking down 57th Street with Mike Nichols before we started filming, he said "The Graduate is the story of a boy who saves himself through madness." Think about that: the character of Benjamin Braddock is naive, full of lassitude, drowning in shallow materialism until he's struck by true love and must go "mad" to win and rescue the girl he loves, who happens to hate him for sleeping with her mother.

Shakespeare was a super psychologist long before the word psychology entered the language. The most talented writers are true psychologists. Years ago, Bill Goldman told me a writing trick he uses. He called it a trick, but it's really psychological insight. "People deny who they are." I wasn't quite sure what Bill meant, but later that same day I got a phone call from my lawyer, a soft, gentle man. He proceeded to tell me how he killed and destroyed someone in the course of a negotiation on my behalf. I realized he was denying his softness by telling me how tough he was. That conversation made Bill's comment leap into sharp focus. Ever since, I've observed many people portraying themselves 180 degrees opposite of how they really are. I only wish I was immune to it.

A pet device of mine to both attack and examine story structure is to have the writer do a paragraph on what the story is from the point of view of each main character. It's an excellent way to see if and how those separate stories intersect to make a unified, cohesive whole.

In my book "So You Want To Be A Producer" I use the example of The Graduate:
1 This is the story of a bored, restless Mrs. Robinson who seduces a boy young enough to be her son, only to learn to her horror that he's in love with her daughter. She of course thinks him unworthy and tries to prevent the consummation of that relationship.
2 This is the story of a young girl charmed by and attracted to a young family friend, only to learn to her horror he had an affair with her mother. She is repelled, and on the rebound with encouragement from her mother, agrees to marry a seemingly ideal, preppy young man, only to be swooped up and saved at her wedding ceremony by her true love.
3 This is the story of Benjamin Braddock, at loose ends after graduating college, who allows himself to be seduced by the wife of his father's business partner, only to be forced into dating her daughter with whom surprisingly he falls in love. Undeterred that the daughter is revolted he slept with her mother, he chases her, woos her, and rescues her from an ill-advised marriage. Thus, "saving himself through madness."

Those three points of view surely intersect and make a cohesive whole. Easy to say after that films' success, but I have worked on scripts where examining the story from various points of view showed they did not connect or add up to make a unified story. This exercise is also excellent for making sure you and the writer are on the same page.

Another exercise that is sometimes useful, is to outline a script after it's been written. In shorthand form, you can more readily assess if ?who is doing what to whom and why' makes sense, and adds up to the story you wanted to tell in the first place.


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