Truth and fiction

It’s not just Austrian actors who’ve had trouble with knives this week. Just in case we were in danger of placing too much trust in politicians, the Home Office has been accused of unnecessary creativity in its trumpeting of success against knife crime. Thankfully Chris Dillow has written this gleeful deconstruction of some of the ways in which crime statistics can be made to say whatever you want them to. 

There’s a general assumption that people who work with numbers are sensible, rational and factual, while people who work with words and pictures are emotional, irrational and unpredictable. But in reality the logic of a story — or a scene — has to be worked through as thoroughly as any mathematical equation. In his book Bambi vs. Godzilla David Mamet sums up this challenge brilliantly:

The filmed drama (as any drama) is a succession of scenes. Each scene must end so that the hero is thwarted in pursuit of his goal, so that he … is forced to go on to the next scene to get what he wants. […] To write a successful scene, one must stringently apply and stringently answer the following three questions:

1. Who wants what from whom?

2. What happens if they don’t get it?

3. Why now?

This process has to fit both strands of the double helix that makes up the DNA of drama: character and plot. As with statistics, you can try to massage one strand or another to fit the answer that you want; unlike statistics, you’re very unlikely to get away with it. This is because (a) we’ve all seen a vast number of stories, and (b) most people have near perfect pitch for emotional truth, which is why we find ourselves yelling at the screen: “She’d never do that!” or “Those two would never fall in love!”. As Billy Wilder said of the audience, “An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together — that is critical genius”. 

This stringent working through of a scene to find its emotional truth is as true of the wildest fantasy as it is of so-called realism, which is one reason why most superhero movies are so unsatisfying. It’s also the real secret behind Disney’s success: they have always understood that the desires and motivations of a candlestick have to be just as well developed as those of a mermaid. Ultimately, every scene in every film is there to make a case: why the audience should care what happens next. This case has to be argued as convincingly and truthfully as possible, or the audience is gone. 

Or, to put it another way: Facts are easy. Truth is hard.

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