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Lopsided Story Structure

7 June 2009 Comments off

Yesterday I re-watched an old favorite, the 1950s low-budget science fiction cheese fest Killers From Space.

It’s a groovy flick if you watch it in the right frame of mind, but watching it critically is enlightening as well. The story has two enormous problems that, had anyone bothered to work on them, would have improved the story greatly.

The first, and the one that needed to be solved at the script stage, is the enigmatic position of the main character. Peter Graves stumbles into the plot about ten minutes in (another issue I’ll deal with in the next point), and from that point until near the end of the movie, it is completely unclear what his goals are. He is by turns the conflicted protagonist and the dastardly villain, and there is no coherence to his motivations until very late in the narrative. The audience has no handle on who or what he is, what he wants, or what the stakes in the story are.

This lack of focus in the protagonist seems to be a result of a poor decision in the writing. The screenwriter clearly wanted to construct a mystery that would draw the audience through the story. Unfortunately, he ends up confusing the audience and giving us an act and a half where we really have no reason to care what happens, because we don’t know what the stakes are.

This could have easily been resolved at the script stage by restructuring how and when information was fed to the audience. Instead of keeping us at arms’ length from the protagonist, the story could have given us more of a clue as to what was driving him, and earlier, feeding out his motivations and the stakes being fought for in pieces that end up fitting together at the end, instead of just giving it all to us in one big gob prior to the climax.

This all ties into the second problem, which could possibly have been solved in the editing room — although it would have shortened the film’s already scant running time.

The first half (or more) of the film gives you no indication of what the story is. You get a long, plodding, padded “mysterious” section that, at most, should have been a ten minute setup. Instead, it goes on for half an hour or more, up to the point where Peter Graves is given truth serum and narrates the real story, a flashback explaining what happened to him and why he’s been acting so mysteriously.

The meat of the story is the flashback, explaining where Graves had been, why he was doing what he was doing, and setting up the climax. Everything that came before was wasting time or, if you want to be polite, “mood-setting”. It could have been dramatic if the audience knew what a terrible position Graves was in, but they didn’t. It could have been tense if they knew the conflict between what he had to do and what was right, but they didn’t. Not until the flashback is complete does all become clear, and by that time (I’m guessing), most folk were in their backseats conceiving the next generation.

So cutting most of the first thirty minutes would speed things up tremendously (but make the film too short). What about restructuring the story?

If you have the narrative follow Graves from beginning to end, the story would become much more dramatic, but things would still be unbalanced. From the point where his plane crashes, you would then be front-loading all the (reasonably cool, if cheap) alien stuff, and all the shenanigans on the Air Force Base would seem, perhaps, less exotic and interesting. But it would be more interesting than it was before, because you would know why Graves was behaving so oddly, what his conflict was, and the choices he was faced with.

It was never going to be a perfect movie, but it could have been better.

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