What's the Big Deal? by Christopher Vogler
Hollywood is a sink-or-swim industry where they rarely take time to teach you anything, but I once got a useful lesson early in my career when I was a reader for Orion Pictures. Our story editor called a meeting of the readers to tell us none of us had any idea what a scene was. I was surprised; I thought I knew. A scene is a short piece of a movie, taking place in one location and one span of time, in which some action takes place or some information is given. Wrong, she said.
And proceeded to explain that a scene is a business deal. It may not involve money but it will always involve some change in the contract between characters or in the balance of power. It’s a transaction, in which two or more people enter with one kind of deal between them, and negotiate or battle until a new deal has been cut, at which point the scene should end. It could be the reversal of a power structure. The underdog seizes power by blackmail. Or it could be the forging of a new alliance or enmity. Two people who hated each other make a new deal to work together in a threatening situation. A boy asks a girl out and she accepts or rejects his offer. Two gangsters make an alliance to rub out a rival. A mob forces a sheriff to turn a man over for lynching. The meat of the scene is the negotiation to arrive at the new deal, and when the deal is cut, the scene is over, period. If there’s no new deal, it’s not a scene, or at least it’s not a scene that’s pulling its weight in the script. It’s a candidate either for cutting or for rewriting to include some significant exchange of power.
The story editor pointed out that many writers don’t know what a scene is, either, and put in non-scenes that are just there “to build character” or to get across exposition. They don’t know when to begin and end a scene, wasting time with introductions and chit-chat and dragging the scene out long after the transaction has been concluded. The scene is the deal. When the deal is done, get off the stage.
I found this principle very useful in pinning down the essence of a scene, and I found it also works at a macro level in identifying the bigger issues in a script, for every story is the re-negotiation of a major deal, a contract between opposing forces in society. Romantic comedies are a re-negotiation of the contract between men and women. Myths, religious stories, and fantasies rework the compact between humans and the greater forces at play in the universe. The terms of the uneasy balance between good and evil are re-evaluated in every super-hero adventure and story of moral dilemma. The climax of many movies is a courtroom judgment that lays out a new agreement, passing sentence on a wrongdoer, proclaiming someone’s innocence, or dictating terms of a disputed transaction. In all cases, we go in with one deal and we come out with a new deal having been cut.
Knowing when the big deal of the movie has been cut tells you when the movie should be over. Many movies today go on long after they have truly ended, as far as the audience is concerned. They know it’s over when the last term of the deal has been decided, and they get restless if the filmmaker goes on with extra flourishes and codas and flashforwards to ten years later, etc.
And at the macro-est level of all, storytelling itself is a deal. It’s a contract between you and your audience. The terms of the deal are these: They agree to give you something of considerable value, their money but much more importantly, their time. You are asking them to pay attention to you and you only for ninety minutes. Think about that! Focused attention has always been one of the rarest and most valuable commodities in the universe, and it’s even truer today, when people have so many things vying for their attention. So for them to give you even a few minutes of their focus is huge stakes to put on the table, worth much more than the ten bucks or so they shell out, and therefore you’d better come up with something really good to fulfill your part of the bargain.
There are many ways to fulfill that contract. I used to think the “Hero’s Journey” model that I describe in my book THE WRITER’S JOURNEY was an absolute necessity. I still think it is the most reliable way to honor the terms of the deal with the audience, providing them with a metaphor for their lives that includes a taste of death and transformation. They tend to read it into any story anyhow, and it’s actually hard to tell a story without including some of its elements. But I’ve come to see it’s not the only way to hold up your end of the deal. At a minimum you must be entertaining, in the original sense of the word, to hold their attention with something a little novel, shocking, surprising, or suspenseful. Be sensational; that is, appeal to their sensations, give them something sensual or visceral, some sensation that they can feel in the organs of their bodies, like speed, movement, terror, sexiness.
A good ride to another place and time can fulfill the contract. I don’t remember being moved much by the story of THE ABYSS but I felt well repaid by being taken to a cool dark place under the sea for two hours on a hot summer afternoon. Giving them stars they like in appealing combinations or new costumes is a way the studios have always used to uphold their deal with the public. You loved Kevin Costner in his cavalry outfit, you’ll love him in tights as Robin Hood. Sheer novelty weighs heavily with audiences, justifying the investment of their time and attention. It’s worth a lot to people to be able to talk about the movie everyone’s buzzing about, be it PULP FICTION, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, or 300. Fulfill a deep wish the audience has – to see the dinosaurs walk again in JURASSIC PARK, or to fly and wield superpowers in SUPERMAN. The audience will forgive a lot of story problems and plot holes if other terms of the contract are satisfied.
At first I resisted the idea that it’s all wheeling and dealing – it can’t just be about business, can it? But I came to see it is, in a way. From the Bible on down we have lived by our contracts, for the Bible is an account of the deals made between God and his creation. We all have an unwritten deal with the rest of society, called the social contract, to behave ourselves in return for our freedom and relative safety. The essential documents of our civilization are contracts, agreements made or statements declaring the terms of a new deal, from Hammurabi’s Code and the marriage contract to the Bill of Rights. Just be sure when you tell your story that you’ve thought about “What’s the deal going down here?” in every scene and “What’s the big deal?” of the whole story. Think of the attention and time your clients, your audience, have put on the table, and try to fulfill your part of the bargain with something that at least entertains them, stimulates and amuses them, and maybe even transforms them a little bit.