#104) “Dunkirk”: Introducing “The Get to the Point Rule”

Dunkirk” is a movie that is excellent (92% on Rotten Tomatoes), popular (made $50 mil opening weekend), and with pretty much flawless, simple narrative structure. In fact, it illustrates what I am hereby and from here on calling “The Get to the Point Rule” for the ABT Template. It is the idea that, “The quicker you can get through the A and the B (set up and problem), the more the audience will let you have all day with the T … provided you’ve set it up right.” Here’s the ABT for “Dunkirk”: The British troops are retreating AND in a month they could all be evacuated safely, BUT the Germans have them surrounded, THEREFORE they only have a few frantic days to escape. That’s it. They go through the A and B in the first minute of the movie. The rest is T, delivered at relentless speed. It’s a great movie.

MAD MAX DOES WWII

MAD MAX DOES WWII



THEREFORE, THEREFORE, THEREFORE ..

I’m putting a name on this ABT rule I’ve been saying repeatedly over the past year. I’m calling it The Get to the Point Rule. The rule is, the quicker you can get through the A and B, the more we want to hear lots and lots about the T, provided you’ve set it up well.

I saw “Dunkirk,” yesterday, thoroughly enjoyed it, and realized it gets through the A and the B in about the first minute. It starts with a couple of screens of text telling you the set up (the British are retreating) and the problem (the Germans have them surrounded). Within another minute we get the first of many THEREFOREs as the actor we’re following runs out on the beach and sees thousands of soldiers standing in line waiting to be transported back to England — i.e. THEREFORE everyone is stuck trying to escape quickly.

From there it’s basically THEREFORE men are being killed by the enemy, THEREFORE they need to bring in rescue ships as quick as possible, THEREFORE just standing on the beach is life threatening.

And then they start back with a whole series of minor ABTs — BUT there’s German planes strafing them, BUT there’s British planes defending them, BUT the Germans manage to sink a ship next to the pier, THEREFORE other ships will have trouble getting in.

Lots of smaller ABTs as the movie moves along the arc of the over-arching ABT. The central problem is the need to get back to Britain. The solution is the fleet of boats that eventually come over (if you think this is a spoiler you don’t know your basic WWII history — also, you might want to hear from a historian about the creative licenses taken).

It’s a great movie, a total ABT workout from start to finish, and shows how if you provide tight enough ABT structure you really don’t have to have much of any character work. Filmmakers figured this dynamic out over a century ago with the serial queen melodramas like “The Perils of Pauline” which we learned about in film school. The recent and brilliant “Mad Max” was a direct descendent of that genre, as is “Dunkirk.”

Give the masses a tight, fast paced story and they really don’t need much else (including character work and backstory). Do this and you score 92% with Rotten Tomatoes. Such is the eternal magic of story.

#101) How Twitter fuels our increasingly mediocre narrative-driven world

The news used to be driven by the truth, at least in theory. Today — more than ever — it’s driven by story (as Trump knows well), which requires sources of contradiction. When contradiction is in short supply, Twitter conveniently provides it. USA Today knows this at a deep and instinctive level. They continue to blaze the path into The Age of Mediocrity.

STORY TRUMPS TRUTH today in ways not seen since the medieval Dark Ages.  Brought to you by science, technology and Twitter, run amok.

STORY TRUMPS TRUTH today in ways not seen since the medieval Dark Ages. Brought to you by science, technology and Twitter, run amok.



STORY TRUMPS TRUTH

Narrative consists of three forces — AGREEMENT, CONTRADICTION, CONSEQUENCE. If you want a solid narrative structure, you need sources of all three.

Furthermore, Rule #1 of storytelling is that “The power of storytelling rests in the specifics.”

Today’s news media has a ravenous appetite for both contradiction and specifics. Twitter provides both.

If I tell you Ann Coulter got into a spat on a flight, that’s moderately interesting. But if I can use Twitter to quote specific words from her AND specific words of opposition, as USA Today does in this article today, it’s much more powerful. Who cares whether the Twitter sources are reputable.

Even more to the point, if I tell you Ed Sheeran’s appearance on “Game of Thrones” sucked, that’s moderately interesting. But it’s much more interesting and engaging if I can cite specific voices — regardless of whether they are professional movie critics. Who cares who they are, they are sources of contradiction and specifics — precious narrative fuel.

It’s happening all day, every day now. How do movie critics even have a job any more? How do any experts have jobs? We are devolving into a gelatinous mass of supposedly all-knowing crowd-sourced knowledge, driven by an increasingly insatiable thirst for narrative, accompanied by an increasing disgust and even contempt for what used to be known as “the truth.”

Thus continues our information-glutted sleigh ride into The Age of Mediocrity, overseen by The Master of Contradiction in the White House. And followed suit by the increasingly dull and mediocre Democrats who respect and value the voices of mediocrity.

#100) The Atlantic demonstrates the ABT

It’s here, it’s there, it’s everywhere you look. Like this article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic. As Aaron Huertas says, it’s like the arrow in the Fedex logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.

ABTsville. Plain and simple — two opening clauses which could be connected with an “AND” (though would sound clunky), then the BUT, and SO which conveys the same force of consequence as THEREFORE.



YES, IT IS THAT SIMPLE AND COMMON

I continue to wage war against all the old farts who say “it’s not that simple.” Yes it is.

We’re definitely making progress. We’ve now run or are running 26 Story Circles. Yesterday we had an “ABT Build Session” with about 20 USDA veterans of Story Circles. It was 90 minutes of discussing and editing about 10 ABTs of the participants. It’s a standard aspect of Story Circles training which is both interesting and productive for everyone involved.

And then this morning I open this month’s issue of The Atlantic and there it is, plain as day — the ABT in the form of the little teaser at the start of an article about a psychiatrist written by David Dobbs who obviously has good narrative intuition.

It’s everywhere you find good communication. Yes, it is that simple.

#99)  The Great Barrier Reef:  If only “most people” were thoughtful

It’s the old Adlai Stevenson line from his 1952 Presidential candidacy.  A woman shouted to him, “All the thinking people are with you.”  He replied, “I’m afraid that won’t do — I need a majority.”  A tour operator in Australia says he’d like to think “most people” would like to know the truth about the decline of the Great Barrier Reef.  I’m afraid my experiences with the Florida Keys and elsewhere goes against that.  As our President would say, “Sad!”

NOT JON BRODIE.  Sorry, NPR, you might want to get your photo ID’s straight.  This is Terry Hughes.

NOT JON BRODIE.  Sorry, NPR, you might want to get your photo ID’s straight.  This is Terry Hughes.



GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT


Here’s yet another tragic article about the staggering levels of climate-induced coral death on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  The news rips at my heart given the number of years I spent studying the reef back when coral bleaching was just a curiosity almost never seen on a broad scale.  Those days are long gone.

In this article a tourism operator offers this final, sadly idealistic comment:  “If you’ve got a fantastic product, but there’s a negative aspect of it, how do you deal with that negative aspect?” Edmondson asks. “It’s best, I think, to explain it because most people are understanding.

Sorry.  “Most people” actually aren’t understanding.  I’m afraid any publicist worth their salt would say, “DON’T SAY A WORD ABOUT THE NEGATIVE ASPECT!!!”

FLORIDA’S CORAL REEF FACADE


I saw this principle up close and personal in 2005 when a group in Florida brought me in to possibly run a “shifting baselines” campaign for the Florida Keys.  The idea would have been a public relations effort in which we would try to instruct the public on how beautiful the coral reefs of the Keys used to be, how impoverished they are today, and how we need their help to get them back to the old days (the baseline conditions).

I spent a week driving up and down the Keys talking to everyone on both sides of the conservation dynamic.  What I learned was that the Tourism Development Council (TDC) of the Florida Keys had a $10 million budget to produce brochures and TV commercials showing the most beautiful, healthy and colorful images of coral reefs … even if the materials had to come from the Bahamas or back in the 1960’s (because you can’t see those sights in the Keys today).

Literally.  That’s what one of the TDC commissioners confided to me.  He also said, “You’re not planning to show ‘the old black and whites’ are you?”

What he meant was the old black and white trophy photos of the 1920’s showing massive game fish on the docks of sizes that have not been seen in the area for decades.  He assured me they would run me out of town if I did.  (Loren McClenachan published this great example of the problem)

I left there telling my hosts who had invited me that unless they had a comparable budget (which they didn’t — their budget wouldn’t have been even one percent of TDC) it was hopeless.  It’s nice to dream of viral videos and communications miracles, but the truth is you mostly get what you pay for in communication (which is the biggest reason why science, being such cheapstakes with communications budgets, sucks at communication).

NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH DEAD CORAL REEF FOOTAGE


Combine that with what we heard in 2002 at our Round Table Evening in Santa Monica for Shifting Baselines.  We had two underwater cinematographers who talked about sending in their coral reef documentaries to Discovery Channel and National Geographic and having the producers chop off their part at the end where they show dead coral reefs and kvetch about the declining state of reefs.

Nobody wants to watch dead coral reefs on TV.  Actually, a few very smart people do — but they’re the same ones that Stevenson said aren’t enough of a resource to win with.  It’s a huge, sad dilemma.

Disneyland and Superheroes win in the end.  And as Bill Maher pointed out earlier this year in a brilliant monologue, when you have a nation that’s addicted to the fantasy nonsense of super heroes, you end up with a President like the one we now have.

And yet, the situation is not hopeless, it just needs greater focus on communication and marketing than the science and environmental worlds are willing to give.  And more importantly, it needs a deeper understanding by all of the eternal power of narrative.  End of story.