This week I’ve been focused on rebuilding my short film, and finding the core of what I want to tell which, I'll be honest, is still a little broad. But it comes down to this: a coming of age story, about a witch. Who would have thought? To explain my thought process with this development, I will be talking about Pan’s Labyrinth (Hero vs Heroine’s Journey), Spirited Away (Coming of Age Stories), and a little on Blake Snyder’s Monster in the House trope... maybe.
5 years old, and I thought I was a Witch
(or maybe slightly longer...)
Writing is personal. Every word, comes from you, and you alone. It doesn’t matter what character you are writing, even if they are the polar opposite of your identity and a genocidal, psychopath—you are still exploring a part of you, and your emotions.
For me, I often explore magic—that wondrous unknown that could be right beneath our nose our entire life, without realising. After all, isn't magic just science we don't understand? At least, that always seems to be the foundation for my mythology.
I grew up with films, shows, and novels, full of these surreal worlds bursting with power; and when I reached early primary school I forced my parents to rent a movie, a moment that has become a milestone since.
In which I'm Spirited Away
To say Hayao Miyazaki is a master of his craft is an understatement. His love of storytelling is on another level that I would argue Disney often falls short.
When I first watched Spirited Away, I thought I was watching something I shouldn’t have been— it was unlike anything I had seen before, and parts of it scared me. But that didn’t stop me renting it every opportunity I had, and watching it on repeat. I was obsessed, and a little bit in love with Haku (Come on, name one Disney Prince that was a bad ass dragon!).
(I'll be honest here, dragons, man. Every time.)
The story goes like this: (though the trailer basically says it all) Chihiro (10) is moving to a new house with her family, when they take a ‘short cut’ that leads them to a dead-end, and over-grown passageway.
Deciding to explore what they think is an abandoned amusement park, they unknowingly enter a magical world where her parents are transformed into pigs for their gluttony after eating food for the spirits.
A panicked Chihiro is helped by Haku who persuades her to accept a job at the spirit Bathhouse to keep her safe while they try to figure out a way to get her back home. And yes, this is a kids movie.
(maybe. Oh, Haku.)
Like most of Miyazaki’s work, it’s a coming of age story. Throughout her stay at the bathhouse, we watch Chihiro grow up; she leaves behind her crybaby habits, and learns the benefits of a strong work ethic and virtue of responsibility. These themes are universal, and that is one of the reasons why his works translate so well internationally.
They also particularly resonate with me. I grew up under intense gymnastic and dance schedules, and was the eldest of three girls; this meant from a young age these values were drilled into me by my coaches and parents. Even when I quit the intense sport activities, to focus on music and writing, I had to become very self-driven as there was no one to teach me; I didn’t receive piano lessons until I proved I would stick to it, and as for writing— well, I’m sure most of you are aware of how self-taught that is.
(me now with sports TBH)
The other thing that really stuck with me, was how Miyazki treated magic—and again, this is something that travels across all of his movies. Magic, to him, is rooted in the practicality of every day life. It isn’t thrown at your face, but is often quite subtle (though at times is very flamboyant).
This is something I reflect in my own works a lot, and I always love when a movie does it— I think I remember Practical Magic being particularly good at this (from memory).
Down the Rabbit Hole
Spirited Away is basically the cookie cutter for the Heroine’s Journey which is everywhere just like the Hero’s Journey. Great examples are Alice in Wonderland, and Coraline. If you want, I can do an actual break down of Spirited Away when I have time, but for now, here is just the Heroine's layout.
1.(Unhappy) Ordinary World 2.Call to Adventure 3.Refusal of Call 4.Meeting with (Trickstor) Mentor 5.Crossing the Threshold 6.Tests, Allies, and Enemies 7.Approach 8.The Ordeal 9.The Reward 10.The Road Back 11.The resurrection 12.Return to Ordinary World
The problem with the Heroine’s journey is it doesn’t end with great change. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. With Spirited Away, I’m sure we would all have loved for Chihiro to stay with Haku— but she is ten, and the story wouldn’t hold the same impact.
But sometimes, you need to change the model.
That’s what Pan’s Labyrinth did.
A Heroine is a Hero
Pan’s Labyrinth is another all-time favourite of mine, which again, I watched at a very young age (maybe slightly too young of a age). The amount of detail in this motive is intense, from the fairytale tropes, to the visual motives, to the character arcs. It is spectacular-- and for those Del Torro fans out there, how excited are you for Crimson Peak? I know, right. Oh my God.
A major theme of this movie is obedience vs disobedience.
In the opening, the main character, Ofelia’s, mother, Carmen, obeys their new step-father when greeting him. Ofelia doesn’t, and sticks out her left hand. Even when corrected, she remains silent.
These actions are seeds that foreshadow the greater conflict at the end when--
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD I would tell you to cover your eyes and skip a head, but for the purpose of this article, that won't work; and to be honest, I would have hoped you'd seen this movie by now. If you haven't, please go watch it now, and return once you have; that, or have decided you can't be bothered, and will spoil it for shits and giggles.
Either way, I hope we can now proceed.
-- foreshadow the greater conflict at the end when Carmen obeys her husband and destroys the mandrake that was keeping her alive; by obeying, she causes her own death.
In contrast, Ofelia disobeys not just her step-father, but her trickster guide, the Fawn; which leads her to being deemed worthy of the Underworld thus breaking the Heroine’s Journey.
If we went by the Heroine’s Journey, Ofelia should never have ended up in the Underworld. No, she should have left the Underworld— lesson learnt to be true to herself or what not—and moved on with her step-brother and new guardians.
Instead she becomes a Princess, which is the Hero’s journey trope in which the main character often becomes King (or at least a celebrated figure) of the second world, and stay there: look at Guardian’s of the Galaxy and the Lego Movie, which are basically the same movie with the same lead actors! And they’re both amazing.
So far we have been looking at high concept films, which mine will be. But that's a tall order to make when writing for a ten minute short. So how do you do it, without cramming in a bunch of exposition?
High vs Low
As I have said a thousand times, my big issue with writing is going too big. If we were writing feature films, I would be owning it (well, I’d hope!); actually no, I wouldn't be. Because the art of balancing high and low concepts may be a defining figure of a short-- but it is for a feature as well. Just because you have more time, doesn't mean you can overwhelm the viewer with heaps of exposition, or that they will just sit there and take it. And this translates into novel writing as well, like it always does.
Getting a story fully fleshed out in around the ten to fifteen mark is quite the feat. It has to be so concentrated, and to the heart. No room for the wishy-washy tangents that you can get away with features and novel writing to an extent (though that shouldn't mean, again, that you should), and I guess you could argue shorts are more impressive than features, because of that. There is, after all, a lot less room for error (if any).
So how do you balance?
I'm going to show you two shorts. One is high concept. The other is low. Then we're going to break them down slightly.
In the Eagleman Stag by Mikey Please we are presented with a very large time duration, and a particular big concept. And yet, Please is able to easily convey his story in under nine minutes.
I'm going to start with the second film, which is very low concept-- but it works on so many levels, because it's heart is large, and it's story universal. In contrast, we have Eagleman Stag which is high concept-- but while it's mainly exposition, it doesn't feel like it. Why?
It's because the heart of it is low concept, with the high concept exposition hovering in the background. At it's core, the short is about a man's thirst for knowledge; it's about his passion. A low, universal, theme. Even when things push science fiction (or fantasy depending if you believe the cell regeneration to be improbable or impossible) towards the end, we're still grounded with this main character.
And they aren't telling us things. From the very opening, they're showing us how this character ticks-- his heart. Something easier said than done, I know-- I am well aware. But that's how it is.
It doesn't matter how grand your story is; at the end of the day, it's about the characters. And yes, it comes back to that human heart I was talking about in my first blog.
If we don't care about your characters; we don't care about your story.
That's the truth. And you all know it.
So that's it for Now
My story has come along way, but it isn't there yet-- it's not even finished plot wise-- and the first, rough draft is due Friday. I'm a little scared, to be honest, but I'm getting there. I was actually going to finish this article by breaking down the Monster in the House trope like I said in the introduction-- but I'm not going to, and CBF changing the introduction. It's getting late (for me), so I'm going to go to bed early.
If you want, I can break it down in the future, hopefully with my script if it goes down that direction.
But anyway, I hope you can make some sense out of all of this. I've thrown a fair bit at you. If something interests you, please continue research into it. I know I only briefly touched the Hero's Journey, but do look into it. It's fascinating to see how many movies fit it!