Unity of Time (or why biopics have good acting, but are really boring)

A few years ago, a biopic about Magaret Thatcher came out. Merryl Streep did a fantastic job in the titular role of The Iron Lady. She won several awards including the Oscar for Best Actress. But as a whole, the movie was virtually unwatchable. Halfway through, I started folding laundry, and by the end, I was scrolling through Twitter. The reason is that The Iron Lady violated an ancient, very clearly spelled out screenwriting rule: the Unity of Time.

Remember, drama isn’t real life. Your real life is probably pretty boring. You wake up. You commute. You suffer through work. You commute home. You play with your kids, watch TV, go to bed, and do it all over again. Not that gripping. When something out-of-the-ordinary happens (your daughter is abducted, you see dead people, an alien lands in your back yard) we have a story. Or at least the beginning of one. But in order to keep that drama, we also need a sense of urgency.

Imminent, terminal cancer like we saw in Breaking Bad (even if it’s mostly manifested as a cough) launched one of the best television shows ever made. An increased risk of Alzheimer’s at some vague future point probably won’t. Film happens now! That’s why it’s written in the present tense. And if nothing’s happening, your audience will tune out. The audience’s ordinary lives (i.e. Twitter) have just become more interesting than your movie.

This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle pointed it out over two thousand years ago. (I did say ancient.) For those of who you like classical learning, check out Aristotle’s Poetics. And if ancient Greek is a bit much for you, Michael Tierno did an excellent job updating it in Aristotle’s Poetics for the Screenwriter.

The key thing for this article is Aristotle’s Unity of Time. To sum it up, the action of the drama (screenplay), should take place in as little time as possible. I think it was Robert McKee who said that a script should be as long as it needs to be, then it should end. Fox’s 24 with Kiefer Sutherland took this to the extreme when each episode happened in real time. One season of twenty-four episodes covered a single day.

That’s a little over the top and the premise wore thin as the seasons went on. But you’ll notice many of your favorite thrillers take place over the course of a few hours or days. If your daughter’s been abducted and we see the seasons changing, it’s hard to hold suspense throughout the script. If the bad guys haven’t done her in over the past few months, she’ll probably be okay for another fifteen minutes. Sounds like a good time to check Twitter.

This is also the reason montages are generally weak storytelling. The “learning to play baseball,” “series of quirky dates,” “watching your business grow” montages get the point across, but aren’t good drama. Are you telling me that your emotionally immature love interests who fought like cats and dogs for the first twenty pages suddenly went on a series of fun, carefree dates to a musical montage and nothing interesting happened? That’s kind of whacky. I thought they were more interesting than that. And yes, you will see these kinds of montages all the time. That doesn’t mean you should do them. You’re better than that.

And of course, this is why biopics tend to be kind of boring. It’s hard to condense someone’s entire life (Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar) into a compelling story arc. (The first half of Life of Pi literally made me want to throw a TV. In another post, I may tell you how that movie could have been immeasurably better.) At the same time, these movies often have fantastic performances. Now you know why those two things aren’t necessarily related.

Just this Thursday, I heard NPR’s Eric Deggans review the amazing true story of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In it he praises Oprah Winfrey’s performance as “one of her best roles yet,” but criticizes the film for being “uneven” with “deeply affecting moments” that “don’t quite knit together into a consistently powerful film.” Does not surprise me in the least.

If you’re writing a script, and it’s not keeping readers on the edge of their seats, Unity of Time may be your problem. Add a concrete deadline. “Get that report on my desk by tomorrow morning.” “You have until midnight to deliver the money.” “Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.” The added pressure tests your characters’ mettle and focuses your story. No time to stop and smell the roses with a Death Star on the horizon.

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Aristotle also advocated for unity of space and action, theories I may discuss in another post. But right now I think I’m going to advocate unity of blog subjects and see you in the next post.

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