Imagine a staircase with two small steps followed by two large steps. I apologize for the crudity of this model (Not quoting Back to the Future–I sincerely apologize. [Well, maybe I’m also quoting Back to the Future. So what?]):
Okay keep that image in mind.
This week I saw Wes Anderson’s new movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. I could (and hope to someday) write a whole post on Wes Anderson, because the guy’s AWESOME, but today I just want to talk about a very small, but very significant element I noticed in his new movie.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is about a concierge, Gustave H, who is known not only for his outstanding service as concierge, but also as a bit of a Casanova for his more elderly patrons.
When one such wizened paramour of his dies, she unexpectedly leaves her most valuable possession, the priceless painting “Boy With Apple”, not to her family but to her secret lover Gustave! The family is enraged and so begins the war over “Boy With Apple”!
Question: We like simplicity in stories, right? It was established that this old woman was wealthy, and wealth is a simple enough concept. So why make the feud about a painting? Seems like an unnecessary element. Why not just make them fight over her WEALTH itself?
The answer is FOCUS.
As simple of a concept wealth is, it’s still abstract. This woman’s wealth would include the money in her bank account, her estate, her possessions, her jewelry, clothes, etc. A painting is an OBJECT. I can see it, I can touch it, I can relate to it. Anderson even imbues it with character by giving it a funny name and making it look a bit weird.
Here’s the principle:
Even simple abstract concepts are grasped better by the audience through CONCRETE representations.
Boy With Apple is a concrete representation (ie tangible, physical) of a plot element, the old woman’s wealth. But “wealth” itself is abstract (ie intangible, conceptual).
Another great example of this is the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones (aka Song of Ice and Fire).
The throne itself was forged from a thousand swords from the enemies of Aegon the Conquerer. Whoever sits on it rules all the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. The story of Game of Thrones consists of the plots and schemes of ALL those whose desire is to sit upon the Iron Throne.
Again–Question: Why emphasize the THRONE? Power is a simple concept that everyone understands! The THRONE is unnecessary!
Again–the answer: Power IS a simple concept, but it’s still a CONCEPT. A throne is a THING. The idea and significance of having political power over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros is MUCH more complex than the CONCRETE representative image of the Iron Throne.
(Who are we kidding? He’s the one with the REAL power in Westeros.)
So what’s the deal with FOCUS? Why do people like it?
This kind of FOCUS means concentrating all the complicated explanations, contexts, relationships of various characters, big emotions, subtle emotions in ONE object. This makes the thing itself feel meaningful in an emotionally powerful way. Emotions are what fiction is all about–the more concentrated those feelings are, the stronger their impact.
This idea of FOCUS from conceptual to the concrete isn’t only used for plot elements. We see the same technique used to simplify characters as well.
Darth Vader is a COMPLEX character.
Even forgetting the huge DEPTH added to his character in Episode VI, he’s not just your generic BAD DUDE.
He’s this cruel, inhuman, authoritative, mysterious former Jedi! There are SO many things that make up Darth Vader, BUT Lucas gives us one thing to grasp which TOTALLY sums up Vader’s character.
The force choke. It’s cruel, often just a BIT of an overreaction. It’s inhuman, as different from a blaster as Vader is from his subordinates. It’s authoritative, always used to assert his authority or as a punishment. And it’s MYSTERIOUS, being a thing only a former Jedi could and would do.
We KNOW the force choke as Vader’s move because it perfectly sums up everything he is. The character COULD exist without it, and could even connect to the audience and be understood with no problems at all. But the FOCUS of the trademark move solidifies the character in our memory in a condensed, emotionally supercharged way.
Catchphrases accomplish this too. The Tenth Doctor’s “Allons-y” is the PERFECT one word summation of his quirkiness, his enthusiasm, his courage, and the air of excitement each of his episodes carry.
Similarly, “Exterminate!” is the perfect representation of the Dalek’s mindless, superior, genocidal, hive-minded character.
Catchphrases are never NECESSARY, but the FOCUS they provide can really make their characters click in the audience’s mind.
You’ve probably been wondering about the imagery of the GIANT steps. We’ve discussed two small manifestations of this principle: the focusing of plot elements and individual characters. What are the BIG steps? Does this idea have manifestations that are THAT much bigger?
Yes. TOTALLY yes.
Boy With Apple was a use of FOCUS for a single plot element, the One Ring was a use of FOCUS for an ENTIRE PLOT.
Lord of the Rings could EASILY have been about a war between the Men of the West and Mordor. In fact, it was. A HUGE part of the story had nothing to DO with the Ring, it was about Rohan and Gondor and Aragorn becoming king and elves and Legolas and Gimli and BOROMIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRR!!!
So what’s the deal with the Ring? Why even have it?
The Ring IS Sauron in object-form: there’s greed, corruption, aggression, deception, temptation, etc. The war between Sauron and the rest of Middle Earth is enormously complex, both plot-wise and in what it represents, so Tolkien BRILLIANTLY mirrors the ENTIRE story through the microcosm of Frodo’s quest to destroy the Ring, which simplifies EVERYTHING in the audience’s mind. He even links the two by making Sauron’s power DEPENDENT on the Ring and making the destruction of the Ring synonymous with his downfall. This infuses the Ring itself with a HUGE concentration of emotion, and infuses what the Ring represents with clarity and meaning.
So here we have FOCUS being used to condense an ENTIRE plot, but it gets even bigger…
So what’s that last HUGE step?
What’s an even MORE enormous application of FOCUS?
I’ll start with an example, but it’s going to get meta real quick after that:
The Matrix is about what?
It’s about NEO.
And Morphius and Trinity and Agent Smith and how they help/hinder Neo in accepting his destiny as the One.
So same question: Why make the story about the One? The Matrix is already an interesting enough concept, why layer the ENTIRE story of Neo on top of it?
You CANNOT do it any other way. You CAN’T have a story that’s JUST about the Matrix and NOT about CHARACTERS. The Matrix isn’t a PLOT. It’s just an idea, which is not a story.
So what’s the HUMUNGOUS fourth step of FOCUS?
ALL of STORY STRUCTURE.
Story structure itself–plots, characters, settings, themes–are themselves CONCRETE representations of much more ABSTRACT ideas.
Stories are ABOUT many different things, whether we’re dealing with SUBJECT MATTERS like the Matrix, dreams (Inception), reincarnation (Cloud Atlas), trains (Atlas Shrugged), geisha culture (Memoirs of a Geisha), historical events, lives of real people, etc. Or whether we’re dealing with IDEAS like justice, compassion, independence, good and evil, freedom, greed, doubt, lust, chaos, war, etc. But what makes stories STORIES is that they’re not cold, removed, academic treatments of these subjects, but NARRATIVES about PEOPLE dealing with these concepts. The idea of a PLOT or a CHARACTER is a FOCUS of all that complexity of the given subject matter or idea into a CONCRETE form we can connect to–namely, a sequence of events concerning a limited number of people.
Just like we connect to the slightly more complex idea of WEALTH more concretely through “Boy With Apple”, we connect to the enormous complexity of World War II through Band of Brothers. We connect to the entire life of Abraham Lincoln through the VERY small snippet of events shown in the movie Lincoln. We connect to the horrendously complicated theme of MORALITY vs CHAOS through Batman, the Joker, and the plot of the Dark Knight.
EVERY story takes a subject matter or idea the story is ABOUT and concretizes it–FOCUSES it–in the concrete form we LIKE and RELATE to: the narrative. Personality types and cultural sentiments become characters, historical and sociological contexts become settings, ideas become plots. The complex, abstract, intangible LIFE around us becomes a STORY.
FOCUS is something I employ the heck out of in this blog. I won’t just write a post about mistakes in character hierarchy progression, which is complex–I make up a term, the Bump Up, and use that short concrete phrase to convey the idea. I won’t just write about taking the experience of a story beyond the page in my DEPTH Series, I make sure to emphasize the word DEPTH over and over again and even capitalize it each time it appears.
If you look around ANYWHERE in life you’ll see FOCUS all over the place. We don’t just have a country that stands for ideals and values. We have a FLAG, which represents the enormous complexity of our country’s ideals in a concrete form.
We don’t just have loving committed relationships, we give each other RINGS which symbolize our love in a tangible CONCRETE form.
Companies have slogans. Books have covers. People have names. FOCUS is EVERYWHERE. It’s how the human mind works. It’s what the psyche likes. It’s our favorite thing to do with complexity.
But back to stories–in light of all this, much of the time what a good and interesting story is lacking is FOCUS through CONCRETE plot elements and CONCRETE expressions of character. And a lot of times what makes a great story GREAT is its ability to FOCUS the large scale story elements like plot (e.g. Lord of the Rings) or character (e.g. chaos and the Joker) into large scale concretizations.
This is a big idea, and it gets subtle as its scope broadens. For a summary, we can just reference our staircase:
Or, for an even simpler representation: