Friday, January 19, 2007

Symbolism and Foreshadowing

So far, in this season of rewrites, I've examined my Nicholl entry for:
  1. Contrived Conflict
  2. Sidekick Story Problems
  3. Dialogue which doesn't sound overheard
  4. Characters who aren't specific
  5. Main characters without edges
  6. Absence of specificity to scenes, characters, and dialogue
  7. Absence of texture to scenes, characters, and dialogue
  8. Weak verbs and pansy words

There's much more to do and steps that need repeating so this rewrite may never actually be "done". I'll just one day stop editing because the Nicholl deadline is upon me. Tick. Tick. Tick. Now, it's time to take a look at my screenplay with a view toward evaluating --

Symbolism and foreshadowing

Why did I lump two very different literary tools together? Because we writers often make the same mistake with both of them -- we think them to death. Some brilliant somebody in a classroom someplace taught us that these two devices were pinnacles, cornerstones, or defining characteristics of a great story so we respond by contriving, calculating and then planting symbolism and foreshadowing in just the right place. But didn't that brilliant somebody also mention --

  1. that the WRITER doesn't tell the reader where the symbolism is or what it means -- the STORY does?
  2. that the WRITER doesn't show the reader where the foreshadowing is -- the STORY does?

Writers can't just ordain that a symbol has certain meaning. It comes from the context of the story. And, foreshadowing isn't a shadow until the story casts light on it. Mis-using these two devices will likely garner a response from a reader that the story feels contrived.

SYMBOLISM - in Pirates of the Caribbean Curse of the Black Pearl, the corset is a blatant symbol of how stifled and restricted Elizabeth Swann feels. Nowhere in the film or screenplay does anyone call attention to the corset as a symbol, but it's obvious. However, it's NOT obvious until the story makes it such. In the beginning, the corset is just a corset. But, without it, there'd be no story at all, literally OR figuratively.

A word of caution about symbolism - don't overdue it. How many times did we need to see Superman Returns make symbolic comparisons between the man of steel and Jesus Christ? Once was interesting. Twice was too much. After that, it got downright annoying.

FORESHADOWING - in Mystic River, when Kevin Bacon's character is pondering over a murder and asks how a woman so small got the jump on her attacker, he's just asking a question as a normal part of an investigation. Most of the audience didn't realize it was foreshadowing until the end of the film and maybe not even then. The comment about the killer is both foreshadowing AND an important key to the story.

A word of caution about foreshadowing - too much makes the story predictable and throwing in a lot of fake foreshadowing (red herrings), well that may work in horror films but in most genres, it just ticks readers off.

IMPORTANT SAFETY TIP: As a screenwriter, you will likely identify foreshadowing that other viewers miss. If you happen to be watching a film in the theatre -- oh let's use Mystic River as an example -- and happen to identify foreshadowing early in a film, do not blurt out "oh, man, that means the kid did it!" lest the audience pummel you with snack food.

FYI: Mustard will wipe off your leather jacket without leaving a stain but it will take at least three shampoos to get the nacho cheese out of your hair.

You've been warned.


ECHenry said...

Can't believe you're sweating the Nicholl's deadline. Isn't that like in MAY!

You're aproach to re-writing sounds very anylytical. Good, but analytical. Are you having any "fun" re-writing like that?

In Karl Igleaseas's "The 101 Habits of High Suceessful Screenwriters" Akiva Goldsman gave out the advice, "if the fun goes in, it comes out the same way too." (Anyway it was something like that.

Point: don't try SO HARD that you're writing isn't fun anymore.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

P.S. The other day I was thinking about you at work and I came up with the comparision that you a modern day Gena Davis. A swoshbuckler if you will, only instead of being on "Cutthroat Island" you're in Texas weilding you're saber as paper pusher. Am I right?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Writing is fun and rewrites are work. That's the nature nature of the beast.

I don't work in the part of city government that pushes paper. I'm more of a public servant and a problem solver so the swashbuckler image is probably on the money. The saber, however? That's a great idea!

Brett said...

I've heard a lot of refs to the all-fired super-critical importance of that corset in PIRATES. Yes, it's a symbol, and I get that, and it's cute and works. BUT... it is **NOT** so critical to the story that it might not just have easily have been removed or replaced by any of a dozen other less clearly symbolic devices.

Ex-- Ignore the corset entirely. Swann delivers a dress to his daughter, and she complains that it is tight and restrictive, and Swanna answers about 'latest fashion." On the turret, as Norrington tries to propose a formal relationship which (via expression and body language) we immediately understand sparks little interest in Elizabeth. As she moves and retreats and dodges Norrington's advances (figuratively and literally) she trips over the wall and falls to the water below.

Now-- this scene works every bit as well, makes every bit as much sense, and conveys every bit the same information, and provides every opportunity for equally logical deconstruction: "the walls of the MALE made castle clearly are symbolic of the 'walls' which constrain Elizabeth and all women, and it is her refusal to simply commit herself to the control and ownership of a man causes her to trip against and over their traditional constraints, causing her to fall Jack Sparrows unwalled level, where he then frees her of her societal constraints when he tears away the heavy soggy dress and reveals her wearing a corset which has not really figured into teh scene and rates mention now only as it affords us a cheeky glimpse of Libby in her skivvies, yum yum."

Yeah, TnT specifcally cite (with a chuckle...) how the story would not have worked without that corset, but that doesn't mean that it's the ONLY way the story might be made to work. The corset is a good symbol upon which we can hang all sorts of weight and significance, but one could just as easily (and effectively!) use many other alternative symbolic devices without weakineing the larger story one tiny bit.

Yeah, they CHOSE to use teh corset and use it as a suymbol of traditonal constraint, but they might just as easily has chosen to allude to any of a dozen other issues by using some other equally sensible and symbolic item action, and if they had done so it still would not have changed the story to any significant extent. It's a cute touch and done well, but it's not critical, and not anything that changes the thrust of the movie from that point on.

My point? I dunno... maybe "don't get so hung up on any one single brushstroke that you think that's what the painting is about."


MaryAn Batchellor said...

To that end, Brett, yeah, they could have used a tight dress, shackles, high walls or any other symbol of confinement but I disagree -- it WOULD have been a different story. She retreats from Norrington and falls -- that changes Norrington's response and ultimately, his character because HE now has propelled this story and HE is the reason Jack Sparrow enters Elizabeth's life.

But the point isn't about POTC or how effective that symbol is. POTC was just an example.

The point is that symbols don't work until the story sheds light on them, whatever that symbol is. That symbol works. It's blatant. It's cheesy, even. But it works because the story makes it work.

The mistake I see writers making is throwing out contrived symbols and then explaining them to the audience.

If the symbol WORKS, the story explains it. The author doesn't have to.

Brett said...

I still say it's not a symbol -- it's a maguffin.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

A symbolic McGuffin?