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.
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 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, 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.