by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Most people’s familiarity with Rube Goldberg machines comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons. These comical appliances take a simple task and create an incredibly complex process around it. Several films have memorable opening scenes where Rube Goldbergs are seen. Back to the Future and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure open with incredibly convoluted homemade technologies that make breakfast and feed pets. Often, as writers, we are attempting to do just the opposite. We need to take a massively complex issue or story and simplify it to a point where our audience can engage and enjoy it. But how do we go about doing that?
Here are four methods for presenting complex material to your audience.
1. FOCUS ON A SMALL ASPECT OF THE LARGER STORY
This technique has been used a great deal of late. Rather than trying to give us a biopic of Abraham Lincoln’s life, Lincoln focuses on two pivotal weeks of the President’s career. Lincoln’s journey and the complexities surrounding slavery and the Civil War would be far too much for any feature film to structure around. Suffragette takes the same approach with the women’s suffrage movement. Rather than trying to detail the intricacies of the struggle, they instead focus on one woman’s story in the midst of the conflict.
In Do The Right Thing, race relations in New York City are explored through the journey of a pizza deliveryman. The entire story takes place on a single day (compressed time) on a single block (compressed space) in New York. Race relations in any major city are surely complex. Bringing these complications down to a manageable size helps the audience digest how the lessons of these smaller stories apply at higher levels.
2. FOCUS ON ONE CHARACTER’S PERSPECTIVE
The work of Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson has made every screenwriter want to try their hand at the ensemble story at least once. Pulling these stories off successfully is an achievement that few writers can master. Unless you have years of storytelling experience under your belt, focus on one or two characters and their perspectives in complex situations.
The rise, successes, and failures in the tech industry are a complex narrative, to be sure. Silicon Valley features a wide array of comical characters that make the tale more interesting. However, the intricate story is clearly from the perspective of Richard Hendricks. Spotlight unravels the Boston Clergy sex abuse scandal in a mesmerizing way. The case is handled by a team of reporters, all who bring layers to the story, in unique ways. However, Spotlight is told from the perspective of the head of the team, Robby Robinson.
There is a delicate balance that must be maintained when telling stories about complex situations. It often requires the use of many characters. The trick is to keep the perspective from one character clear and allow the other characters to challenge, change, or support that perspective.
3. USE METAPHOR
Writers have taken complex emotions, scenarios, and people and portrayed them with metaphor for centuries. Sometimes the easiest way to understand something or someone is by understanding a similar idea.
Angela Hayes, the cheerleader that Lester Burnham fixates on in American Beauty, is a metaphor for the youth and vitality that Lester feels he is losing. The Winklevoss twins in The Social Network are metaphors for the corporate structure that tried to stomp out the entrepreneurial success of social media. Baseball is used as a metaphor for the universal desires we all have about safety, leisure, and happiness in Traffic.
Sometimes the easiest way to make a complex idea simple is to state it indirectly. Metaphor gives us the power to do just that.
4. BREAK THE FOURTH WALL AND DIRECTLY EXPLAIN
This technique should be used with caution. It can serve as the calling card of a lazy writer or at least a writer who lacks the skills to use another technique for making a complex idea simple. However, when used as an organic or creative aspect of the narrative, it can be quite engaging.
Explaining the housing crisis of 2007 is a tough goal for any story. In The Big Short, Jared Vennett occasionally breaks the fourth wall and has a celebrity, such as Margot Robbie, explain a complexity to the audience directly. The approach feels fresh thanks to the execution. Philippe Petit breaks the fourth wall and explains his inner feelings and motivations to the audience throughout the story in The Walk. This approach actually helps us understand why someone would undertake such a deadly activity.
In The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Minnie breaks the fourth wall in order to make her case to those in the audience who would question the wisdom of a teenage girl having an affair with an older man. It’s important to remember that this approach will not work for every story. It is a technique that should only be used when the narrative is actually better served by employing its power.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.