Sunday, July 27, 2008

Coyote vs. Roadrunner: Lessons for Screenwriting

Everything I know about character development I learned by watching Roadrunner cartoons.

Each character -- Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner – have their own motivations and obey their own distinct rules of behavior. Chuck Jones defined some of these rules when the cartoon was created.
  • The Roadrunner just wants to run down the highway. He won’t do anything aggressive to the coyote except by saying “Beep, Beep!”
  • The Coyote just wants to catch the Roadrunner. Unable to do it by speed alone, he calls on his wits and the products of the Acme Corporation to try to achieve his goal. He is ultimately defeated by his own intentions, thwarted by forces he doesn’t understand (physics, the Roadrunner).
When these characters interact, it is the purest form of what I call "existential story conflict" or "existential filmmaking."

Existential story conflict works like this: A protagonist with obvious goals (the Coyote) does his clever best to achieve these goals (through the use of Acme products) but he is thwarted by mysterious forces he doesn't understand (the Roadrunner and the laws of physics). Eventually, however, he does understand them (by experiencing the painful effects of his scheme).

In the cartoons, there is no character change. The Coyote "learns his lesson" by receiving the bad effects of his scheme, but he doesn't learn anything in the long term. In more complex films, the protagonist does change, by learning about both himself and his opponent.

An existential story is a voyage of discovery, driven by the protagonist's simple goal. The mysterious force is explored, and eventually the roots of its behavior are uncovered.

The whole story is based on a simple principle: the motivations of a character, while plain to them, may not be obvious to someone else. The other person has to discover these motivations by a series of experiments, which is what makes up the bulk of the story.

  • In 2001, the astronaut Dave is the obviously motivated protagonist. He just wants to complete his mission. Hal 9000 is the mysterious force: He seems to want to kill Dave and his colleagues. When Hal sings "Daisy", we learn something about Hal's motivations: That he isn't just a killer computer but something of a grown-up child like the rest of us.
  • In Barton Fink, the title-named protagonist just wants to write a screenplay. His salesman neighbor seems to just want to help, but he turns out to be a mysterious force with more sinister motivations. The resolution comes when those sinister motivations are revealed.
  • In the Truman Show, Truman is the innocent protagonist, just trying to make sense of life. The mysterious force he is trying to understand is the TV show that has been created all around him. Eventually, he comes to understand that it is a TV show, and this allows his escape.
All of the great existential films are like this: A simple protagonist we can identify with is trying to make sense of mysterious forces. Those mysterious forces are eventually understood and turn out to be just as simple as the protagonist.

All these stories are essentially the same as Coyote vs. Roadrunner (or more precisely, Coyote vs. the World). The protagonist has simple motivations that power the course of the whole story. (Most of the running time of cartoons consist of the Coyote assembling his Acme devices.) The substance of the film is how the Coyote sets out to get the Roadrunner, but the surprise is how the opposing forces have different plans. The resolution comes when the Coyote eventually grasps the opposing forces -- usually by being whacked on the head by them!