Saturday, October 22, 2011

Story Analysis: Example

Here's an example of a character animation story treatment that is fairly typical of MFA candidates. (Represented here by permission.)


Late-20’s, 6’2” athletic build, Short dark hair, dark eyes, light skinned, Latino

Mid-20’s, 5’10” curvaceous body, Long dark hair, light eyes, caramel skinned, Latina

The story begins with a dream sequence of a man’s relationship with his wife from first meeting to happily married, and then the man starts from his sleep only to find himself in a jail cell. When the man looks to see what woke him he sees two guards coming into his cell with handcuffs and leg irons.

Powered by panic and confusion the man throws his head back breaking the guard’s nose as he tries to put on the handcuffs. Rushing the second guard the man breaks free of his cell and runs down the halls of the prison looking for the door that he constantly sees flashing in his mind.

When he finally reaches the door he bursts through it and finds himself running through the grass with nothing between him and freedom. Before the man can get too far he stops short to find himself looking over a sheer cliff face. The breeze coming from the sea far below triggers a flash back and the man finds himself standing in his bedroom looking at another man in bed with his wife, a policeman’s uniform in a pile next to the bed.

In a blind rage the man jumps on top of his wife’s lover raining down blows until his arms are heavy and his face is covered with blood. The man turns to face his wife, wearing nothing but a bed sheet, as she screams in fear. Crying, he walks towards her pleading for a reason why she would do this. Backing away from him the bed sheet covering the woman’s body gets tangled in her legs and she tumbles and falls over the balcony to her death on the sidewalk ten floors below.

After seeing his wife die floors below him the man hears the door being kicked open behind him and as people start to point at him accusingly the man turns and is transitioned back into the present looking at several guards hesitantly approaching him with another set of cuffs and leg irons.

With tears falling down his face the man looks at the guards as he leans back over the edge. Falling over the edge as lab coats and ceiling tiles flicker into his vision. As the man falls he sees his wife’s face appear in the sky and her arms reach out to embrace him and as he reaches his hand towards her to be reunited forever, he mouths the words “forgive me”.

The background fades as the camera pulls back to show the man in a sterile room, eyes on the ceiling, and hand reaching towards the sky as the contents of the needle empty into his arm and people can be seen watching from the other side of a glass window. As the man releases his final breath into the air his arm falls limp to his side.

In order to analyze the value of this project as it relates to short-form thesis production, we'll have to take it apart in layers.


First, as filmmakers, we need to establish a historical story precedent, if we can. There are few truly unique stories, and it behooves the writer to understand those projects that are related to his or her work in order to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the precedent vehicle. If you can identify these story areas in a work that has been completed, you can guide your own project accordingly.

The work that most resembles this piece is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," a French adaptation of the Ambrose Bierce short story. A powerful work, the black-and-white short subject film is as moving as any feature-length film. The writer of this treatment should watch this film to understand what I mean.
Here is a passable streaming version: It's about 25 minutes in length.


While the emotional tone of the two stories is vastly different, they climb aboard the same plot vehicle: the flashback. Both stories utilize the flashback in support of a red herring (twist) ending, but Owl succeeds where Breathe does not in that our expectations (and therefore our connection to the protagonist) radically change in the opening scene.

Dramatic plot lines necessitate the loading and unloading of audience emotion. In Owl, we open on a contrasting scenario of a bucolic autumn landscape serving as the backdrop of a hanging. Our expectation is that this faceless man will be hanged; yet another faceless malefactor dealt a deserved justice: we are not emotionally connected to the man we do not know.

When the rope breaks, despite our passive acceptance that his hanging was a just reward, we are ultimately relieved to be spared the extremity of his death. After all, we are human, sympathetic, empathic, and at our collective core, we ultimately cherish life.

This is Owl's powerful set-up. We are moved between two emotional extremes: from our flat-line initial resignation to the certainty of the prisoner's death to the spike of his sudden and miraculous salvation.

The second act plot line allows us to put flesh on the character brought to the hangman's noose. A faceless, condemned, throw-away character takes life in the following twenty minutes, as we learn to understand the humanity, the frailty, and the passion within the character we had initially written off.

This device is known an emotional loading. You are bonding the character to the audience in a way that defies contrivance. He is proving in deed and action that he is like any other man, with sensitivity and motivation and love. We grow inside him as grows inside us as we move through the story.

When we are certain that we like this man, understand his desires, have bonded to his mission, he is suddenly and irrevocably dead. The entire story has taken place between the beginning and end of the man's fall on the hangman's rope.

The proverbial "life flashing before a man's eyes" takes on a new meaning as a story-telling device in this classic film.

As we are presented with his death, the red herring twist of flashback realization hits us, and we can view with clarity the circular nature of the story through a new lens: these realizations arriving in a simultaneous flood of awareness: the "aha!" moment of successful storytelling.

The finale's perfect storm of emotion has earned this Bierce story a powerful and enduring legacy. When I first saw this film in high school, I was left speechless.

So, how does Breathe fail where Owl succeeds?

We'll explore more in the next installment.

No comments:

Post a Comment