The Big Idea: Gary Whitta

“Go Big Or Go Home” — it’s an idea, all right, but it is a good idea? Or could a big idea be something on a smaller scale? Gary Whitta asked himself this question with his novel Abomination. What was his answer? It awaits you below.

GARY WHITTA: 

My big idea is actually a very small one. And in some ways it’s a reaction to a frustration that I’ve felt in my day job as a Hollywood screenwriter — and as an audience member — for quite some time. In recent years we’ve seen the rise in popularity of what I believe is a false conflation of stakes and scale, the idea that the grander a story is in terms of scope and scale, the more we’ll care about what’s at stake. This is why so many movie plots hinge on the fate of the entire world/galaxy/space-time continuum. IF I DONT DISARM THIS BOMB A MILLION PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE. Except it doesn’t work that way. Oftentimes the greater the scale of a story, the more the stakes become abstract, something foreign and hard to grapple with for the people living everyday lives who make up movie audiences.

Joseph Stalin, a chap I always like to quote when talking about popular entertainment, famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” We understand intellectually that a million deaths is awful but we can’t really grasp the idea emotionally. Human beings don’t scale emotion that way; a million deaths doesn’t hit us a million times harder than a single one. So when a million faceless, anonymous lives are on the line in the plot of a movie or a novel, it doesn’t actually have that much of an impact on us. Coupled with the fact that we’ve seen this pulled a thousand times and more in movies particularly, we just kind of stop caring. James Cameron perhaps framed it best when he talked about his narrative approach with Titanic, a movie which I am led to understand was fairly successful. I’m paraphrasing here, but basically, “I can’t make an audience care about two thousand people on a sinking ship, but I can make them care about two people.” By focusing his story on two characters, spending the first half of the movie getting to know them, he made the audience care about them when their lives were put in danger. The movie is epic in scale but the emotional stakes are actually very intimate. The rest is just background.

This is a lesson Hollywood still largely needs to learn. The fallacious idea that the bigger the action is, the more we’ll invest needs to go away. It’s sad to say, but Die Hard would not get made today in its current form. “Too small,” the executives would say. “What if the terrorists had nuclear bombs planted all over Los Angeles?” they’d helpfully suggest, as if that somehow is more potent than the simple story of John McClane, an everyman we like and care about, trying to survive against impossible odds while coming to realize that he needs to make things right with his estranged wife. Ditto Jurassic Park. “So these dinosaurs are just on one little island that’s mostly deserted? How can we make this BIGGER?” Well we just saw the answer with Jurassic World, a film that’s inferior to the original despite its far greater scale.

Though film is my first language as a writer, I chose to write my most recent story, Abomination, as a novel because I didn’t want to have to conform to these false ideas, or to see it inevitably subjected to them during a film development process. It is by design a small story, because as Cameron said, I believe it’s more emotionally affecting to tell an intimate story about a small group of characters with relatable emotions and goals than it is a vast, fate-of-the-world, “stake-tistical” epic. The structure of Abomination, which is about a medieval knight dealing with the human consequences of a battle against a plague of evil magic, doesn’t lend itself to a typical movie narrative template. Movies tend to escalate as the story goes on, with all the “biggest” action reserved for a climactic third act.

This is why so many modern movies end with massive battles, often so massive that we tend to lose track of what’s actually at stake and just stop caring. There is a big battle scene in Abomination, but it takes place about a third of the way through the story, and happens largely “off-screen”, referred to only in broad strokes. After that the story scales way down to focus on the characters, whose goals don’t have repercussions for anyone other than themselves. But if I’ve done my job right that matters to you because you’ve come to care about these people.

I think this is crucial, and it goes back to the idea that high stakes don’t require grand scale. Look at Little Miss Sunshine. What’s at stake there? Whether or not a little girl will win a regional talent contest? And yet we care deeply, because we care about those characters and so what’s important to them is important to us. My second-favorite Denzel movie, Man on Fire, also does this brilliantly. The whole first half of the movie is spent painstakingly establishing a relationship between a young girl and the man hired to protect her, drawing them gradually closer, caring more and more about one another — and in turn making us care about them — so that when they are violently torn apart, the fate of that little girl is all the stakes we need.

The author William Zinsser said, “Dare to tell the smallest of stories if you want to generate large emotions.” You’re damn right. And you do have to dare to do it, because the prevailing wisdom tells us that everything has to be bigger Bigger BIGGER for an audience to care. The reverse is true. Zero in on the lives of your characters and let them expand to fill your entire story. Reject quantity. Go small. The fate of the entire world may be at stake.

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Abomination: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

12 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Gary Whitta

  1. This is not a new observation but one that seems to have been drowned out by those that know and so I love that people are talking about it.

    I hated Avatar because it was a caricature of stereotypes. Big boss guy bad, new guy good. What if the baddie was investing in building a future for his family and has chosen to sacrifice the natives for his kids future. Same story but with more emotional depth and a sympathetic villain.

    Computer games are also like this. Just think of the bestselling Halo and Mass Effect. I think it was one of the Halo guys that said that you had to save the world or universe in a game as the stakes have to be big. Deus Ex Human Revolution attempted to split the difference with the world wide conspiracy but I really liked that it was a guy hunting for the truth about the apparent death of his ‘ex’ girlfriend and then attempting to save her.

    The post is correct that sometimes writers are looking for the big picture and miss that most people will do things for small reasons i.e. children and love. The personal connection actually works and allows the audience to connect.

    The best example of this I have come across is the sci-fi Solar Clipper series by Nathan Lowell that is about everyday life in the merchant marine of the future. No epic space battles, just office politics and sexual harassment. The series has kept my attention as well as any of the ‘best selling’ books that feature empires and wars.

    The biggest things are often done for the simplest of reasons.

  2. I agree that if you care about the characters, the impact to what happens is much greater. It doesn’t need to be global in scale.

    Another great example of a small story with huge impact is 50/50. While cancer is a grave outcome, the overall story is mainly about 2 people and you care for both of them.

    Also Gary, I’m a huge Tested fan so this is a nice Venn Diagram of interests for me. Needless to say, I’ll be picking this book up.

  3. As my friends who have kids have shown me, the stakes don’t have to be numerically huge to be compelling. Ask any parent whose child was in an area where there was an earthquake or a flood (or who just hasn’t checked in lately). This sounds like a good story and I’ll be on the lookout for it.

  4. Thank you for this. I’ve been railing against what I refer to as “stakes inflation” (the idea that if you saved the planet in this book, in the next book you have to save the solar system, or the galaxy, or the universe) for years. In fact, my second novel (You Can’t Kill the Multiverse*), makes fun of this very idea with a plot that revolves around versions of a character in different realities who are working together to destroy the multiverse.

    Good to see I’m not the only person who feels this way. Best of luck with the novel.

    * But You Can Mess With its Head

  5. Book of Eli remains one of my favorite postapocalyptic films. Beautifully written and directed, wonderful score (“Panoramic” is one of the best opening title tracks ever) and cast. Even though I fully agree with you about The Universe Must be Saved on a Weekly Basis (I once went rounds with Gene Roddenberry on that very issue), I’m sold on Abomination on its pedigree alone. I hope the novel does well!

  6. Nicely done. Agree entirely ( except that I liked the original Man On Fire with Scott Glen better ;-) Scale is why people care about Cecil the lion but not about the animals they ate for supper.

  7. This is something I admired about Jack Vance: his stories were often about people just doing their job. Maybe “Lyonesse” is the biggest, but that’s High Fantasy. Tales like “The Demon Princes” were scaled small and personal. Many writers should use him as a model.

    (Star Trek is especially guilty of this horrible syndrome. Where’re the tales of somebody just doing their job…. in the future…. with blasters?)

  8. IF I DON’T DISARM THIS BOMB A MILLION PEOPLE ARE GOING TO DIE. Except it doesn’t work that way. Oftentimes the greater the scale of a story, the more the stakes become abstract

    I really love it how the excellent Kingsman movie solved that problem in a very effective way by parallel editing between the fairly abstract The world is going to SHIT (because of the Hate Plague chip in everybody’s mobile) apocalypse and the incredibly personal Eggsy’s mum is going to kill his li’ll brother WITH A MEAT CLEAVER horror.

  9. Add my supportive noises to the supportive noises of others. And a quote from Chekhov (the Russian playwright, not the Enterprise crewman:) “”What happens onstage should be just as complicated and just as simple as things are in real life. People are sitting at a table having dinner, that’s all, but at the same time their happiness is being created, or their lives are being torn apart.”

  10. I appreciated the look at big vs. small stories and how much better small stories are at pulling out big emotions. Alien worked because it was about 7 people surviving a single threat. The Terminator worked because it was about two people trying to survive a single threat (albeit with much larger consequences in the future). 2012 was good popcorn fun, but I just accepted the fact that millions of people died in horrible ways as the planet rebelled against us.

    I’m working on a piece of writing myself that could easily fall into the Big Stakes Pit, but this Big Idea gave me some nice perspective. So, kudos to Gary Whitta, and thanks for the Big Idea post.

  11. Hmm.

    I agree that a small number of individual characters are easier to care about.

    However, I find that it’s easier for me to care about those individuals when there’s that big story in the background, preferably that some of these individuals actually have significant influence on. Need not (probably should not) be universe-sized, but it’s the big story that grabs me, before the individuals can keep me interested.

  12. There’s also the point, and something of a flip-side that films, and sometimes novels, often neglect the consequences and side-effects of their disaster. Oh, the aliens blew up the Taj Mahal? What’s the Indian armed forces going to do about this? What about Pakistan? Remembering that they both have nukes….

    (Reference is to this summer’s special-effects extravaganza Pixels, which is a nice feel-good romp as long as you don’t think too much about anything in the movie.)

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