I don’t watch a whole lot of television, as my schedule doesn’t really allow for it. Now I’ll sit on the couch, in front of the television, working, when I want to join the rest of the world and not be locked away in my office, but I don’t pay really pay attention to what’s going on. This is why Thanksgiving (and other major holidays) is such a treat for me, because I give myself permission to do absolutely nothing, which for me means I watch television all day. There’s usually a nap included in there, so the day’s not a total bust.
This past Thanksgiving, I was able to catch up on some of the few shows I occasionally make time to watch (Emergence and Unearthed), as well as films that have been on my list to watch (Instant Family). I also caught a rebroadcast of the movie Devil. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a film produced by M. Night Shyamalan, about five strangers who are trapped in an elevator and one-by-one, they are killed. A classic who-dun-it with some violence and wonky theology thrown in (the devil is the one killing the [not-so-good] people, but it’s a question of which one is the archfiend). It’s one of my favorites, not because it’s contains kind of award-winning cinematography or writing, but because it’s entertaining. That is the standard by which I judge movies (I actually enjoyed the first Sharknado movie, if that gives you any idea of how low my benchmark is).
However, as I watched it this time, I realized that Devil is also a basic human story. Am I reaching? Maybe, but go with me on this. I grew up with a deeply religious abuela, who did not allow us to watch much outside of Christian programming, Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. So, as the film played, my mind went back to the habits of yore, where I found myself justifying what I was watching. Never mind that I’m a grown up and can watch whatever I want, some habits die hard, or not at all. So, as I watched it, I justified it, thinking about all things that make it ‘bad’ and all the ‘positive things’ you can get out of it. Interesting enough, I found if you break it down to its most basic form, Devil is just a human story.
As a writer, I’ve learned the key to any story is conflict. Once you have that, you characters who have to deal with or triumph over the conflict. The characters should range in personality, but the key is to make the main one(s) likeable enough so that your audience roots for them. The main characters can be bad guys and still be likeable (see: Suicide Squad). Then it’s about the journey to their acceptance of or triumph over the conflict. What the character learns/does from that point is what makes the story human (see: Joker) because we are all flawed, we are all still learning, we all have emotions. And so we connect with the character and walk the journey with them.
As I thought about this, while watching the movie Devil, I thought, okay, that’s the basic synopsis for just about every film out there. Even the really bad ones (see [but don’t see]: Attack of the Killer Donuts <insert eye roll here, because that movie really was stupid with no redeeming qualities>). Every movie is just a basic human story, of triumph or of pain; of success or of failure; of redemption or of condemnation. And depending on your story, that’s the connection you’re going to make when you watch a film. I think that’s why films like Wonder Woman resonated with so many–they finally saw their struggle (as women) on the screen and were able to celebrate with Wonder Woman at the end when she triumphed over her enemy.
So, back to Devil. If you take out the nefarious (and sometimes misguided) supernatural aspect of the film (the conflict), the movie is basically a human drama, a human story. Five people in an elevator, dying one-by-one, experiencing human emotions as they wonder who will be next. The corrupt lawyer is not likeable so when he dies, you don’t really care. But as you watch the others (the old lady, the heiress, the security guard and the average Joe) talk, fight and reveal their sins (the reasons they were ‘chosen’ to be in that elevator), you start connecting with them, so that when the last person is left standing, you are ready to offer them the forgiveness and redemption they seek. You have joined them on their journey and seen their triumph–literally–over the devil. And as the credits role at the end, you walk away celebrating their success, even with the real world ramifications of their sin/crime.
I doubt my abuela would have bought any of this argument. She passed away a year and a half ago and was staunch in her beliefs to the end. But that’s fine–not every story told/written/shared is for everyone listening/reading/watching. But it is for someone. That’s why it’s important, as a writer, to know who your audience is. If you get the story right, you’ll be able to connect with the people out there waiting for what you have to share.
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