Why A Goat?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Compelling Characters and Unexpected Plot Twists

If you've been awake since February 8, you have probably heard that Anna Nicole Smith died and left behind a legal mess. The news of her death temporarily usurped news of the war in Iraq and the Scooter Libby trial. This is hardly surprising. Celebrity deaths, especially in dramatic circumstances, are usually fodder for the journalists. I have to admit that, even after the initial shock and awe, I was glued to the CNN website, refreshing it every five minutes for the latest Anna Nicole update.

Of course, like any good, introspective writer, I asked myself why this story fascinated me so much? And why did it fascinate my fellow writers on Triggerstreet? The thread about Anna Nicole grew to nine pages in three days and got more hits than some of our more vociferous thread discussing religion.

Why did it rivet our attention? The headline says it all. If I may quote member crossword without his approval, "You can't write about this sh*t, no one would believe you." I guess I did quote him without his approval. But it's true. If somebody made a movie with this story as a plotline, it would be deemed too unbelievable to even be a good comedy.

Anna Nicole is the ultimate great character. Despite appearances, she has a lot of depth and contradictions. Consider this. No less than four men have come forward to claim that they could be the father of her child. Now you could say they're just after the millions of dollars her little girl stands to inherit, but why do they all think they might have a chance at paternity of that baby? Because they all had sex with her during the pertinent time period. Do none of them realize that this means she was screwing all four of them at the same time? Did they know this when they were having sex with her? And one of them, the Prince, doesn't need the baby's money. He has more to lose by claiming to be the father and she (the baby) has more to gain by having him as her father. No matter the motives of the other three, he seems to have some genuine feeling for Anna, and because of her, for her child.

In Victorian England women were expected to embody one of two characteristics: the Mother or the Whore. Men didn't want the mothers of their children to enjoy sex and they certainly didn't want the women they took their sexual pleasure with to bear their children. They were kept separate, the Mothers and the Whores, and woe to the woman who thought she could embody both of these characters.

Anna Nicole seems to have managed it. Of course the morals and beliefs of Victorian England are a long way behind us, but small sensations sometimes still linger. It's still fairly surprising, even in our enlightened times, that she managed to balance both these characteristics and lose none of the benefits that come with each one.

But it's not just that we're coming to find out that she's a great character. Let's not forget that "you can't write about this sh*t." This story has more twists than the average human colon. Her lawyer is her boyfriend, but another man might be the father of her child. Fine. You could see that one coming. But then another man – a Prince married to a woman who is a celebrity in her own right – comes forward to claim paternity. That's interesting. But wait, that's not all. The baby's father might be none other than…wait for it…her old rich husband who's been dead for more than a decade. She might have had his sperm frozen. Wow! I did not see that coming.

Now if you're going to do this in a movie (for real), you have to establish that there was an old rich husband who died, so that the plot twist in the third act that he might also be the baby's father doesn't seem so contrived. And if you're going to make this into a movie (a REAL movie, not the movie of the week), you have to decide which plot line you're going to follow. Do you follow the romance? Or do you follow the possible corruption in the world of diet supplements? Because those diet products might have killed her. If you're the president of a company that makes diet supplements and your spokesperson drops dead, do you hope and pray that it wasn't your product that killed her? Anna Nicole was involved in a class action lawsuit that claimed that she used other products to lose weight. So now you're the president of a company that makes diet supplements and your spokesperson might have used other people's products – not just your own – to lose weight. Well, of course you want to deny that as loudly and as often as you can. But when she drops dead, what then? Do you suddenly blame the other guy's product? Or do you continue to insist that she only used your product? It's a Catch-22. You see? That whole scenario is a movie all by itself.

But wait! Just like the K-tel commercial, there's more. There's always more. They can't bury her because they need a piece of her DNA to prove that the child they're testing in really hers, not a ringer. And they don't even know where they're going to bury her. Her mother is positive her boyfriend killed her and her boyfriend says she hated her mother.

Now if I were going to open up a blank Final Draft document and write this down, I would have to decide a few things. First of all, there's genre. Comedy is pretty obvious, but I might go with horror and bring in the ghost of her old rich dead husband to claim paternity to the baby. I might also go with the baby being the child of the Devil, or possessed by the spirit of the dead son. Those are all good plot twists. It could be intrigue. Maybe the president of the diet supplement company killed her. Or maybe the president of a rival company killed her. Maybe the president of the rival company paid off her boyfriend to kill her, but he backed out at the last minute, so they had to figure out another way to get rid of her. Maybe her son's death was a hit gone wrong. She was the intended victim all along, but she didn't feel like eating her custard in the hospital and he was hungry. Five months later, they (the shadowy "They") got it right and down she goes.

In this scenario, I'd have some kind of memory planted in the baby that could be triggered when she turns eighteen, so she could avenge her mother's death. If only Anna Nicole had eaten her custard that day instead of her son, she wouldn't have had time to get that memory planted, so their plot failed anyway.

Hopefully anybody who reads this knows it's just idle speculation for the sake of stories, but I'll put in a disclaimer anyway. None of these scenarios are meant in any way to reflect reality. I don't think Anna Nicole was the victim of a nefarious plot that went wrong the first time. And I don't think she was murdered by a rival diet supplement manufacturer. This post is not meant to offend any of her family or friends. It's meant as an object lesson in how to structure a story and how to create memorable characters.

I think that what happened to Anna Nicole was a tragedy. By all counts, she was a lovely, genuine person, so when I think of the human Anna, I'm very sad. I guess concentrating on the character Anna makes it bearable. Beyond that, any way that this story goes, it's going to make us say, "Wow," and "Oh my God!" And that's just what I want the audience to do when my stories finally make it to the big screen.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


If you're going to write a story, you have to be able to come up with one. We had some good characters, and knew what we wanted to happen to them, but we couldn't get into their heads enough to figure out how to get them from point A (FADE IN) to point B (FADE OUT) without losing our audience to boredom.

So we did the smart thing and bailed.

I don't want this project to be MY story. I want to be able to write HIS story. The low-budget horror was HIS story and HIS characters. I just massaged everything into a reasonable structure and came up with some cool twists. In other words, I did my job.

And we both love this story, but there's that darn expensive special effect that he doesn't want to give up. And kudos to him for not wanting to compromise this element. It's going to look totally awesome on screen if it ever gets there.

So he suggested writing a romcom. I've never written one, but I do have a huge sense of the absurd. I've never felt qualified to write comedy, but I've seen many romcoms and what I like about them is that the comedy is not as broad or as ubiquitous as in what you would call a comedy. In romcoms you often chuckle or smile at a scene, but you don't expect the big belly laughs and hysteria that you do with a comedy.

But then we ran into the problem of what to write. I came up with an idea that I really like (and I'm writing it on my own), but it didn't appeal to my director. Then we came up with this other idea that turned out to be a bust because we couldn't find that elusive path from point A to point B.

Finally, earlier this week, he came up with a kind of logline/outline for a NEW story, and we BOTH like this one. So I'm taking a moment to let you know that we're back on track and full of hope and confidence (like new parents), and then I'm going to spend the rest of the day coming up with character bios and the first act.

Woo Hoo!