Look, we can’t all hire Jean-Paul Gautier and Jean-Claude Mezieres to make our movie look truly dazzling and spectacular. But on top of the gorgeous visuals, Luc Besson’s sci-fi masterpiece Fifth Element has some of the greatest plotting you’ll see in any film, which means there’s always something to learn.
1. Everyone Knows the President
One of the great parts of storytelling is bringing characters together, and when you’re building a setting, you usually want to bring together characters from different parts of that setting to reveal different points of view. There are a few ways to do this: there’s the slow accretion of wandering stragglers along a journey, there’s the domino plot where Bob the homeless guy logically knows the social worker who knows the cop who knows the lawyer who knows the judge who knows the politician, there’s the random encounter where the homeless guy lands in the judge’s house do to unlikely circumstances, and then there’s the star plot, where everyone knows the important person in the center, whether they’re Nick Fury or, in this case, The President.
This is in fact a reverse of the trope we talked about last time – Everyone Knows Lo Pan. That’s villain-side, so today we learn that it works hero-side as well. You have to bend credibility a bit, perhaps – the rundown taxi-driver used to be special forces, the priest of the ancient cult has face time with the President, but that fudge lets you have the best of both worlds: everyone comes from vastly different walks of life, but it’s not that hard to get them all together, and, what’s more, to get them sent on the mission and be humanity’s last hope. That same end-game for an accretion of stragglers requires just as much heavy lifting of belief (more, if one of them just happens to be the chosen one) but it’s less talked about because it happens at the end when everyone is running through explosions, so we notice it less. We have a tendency in writing and gaming to pitch small, because we feel small is believable and small doesn’t abuse the storyline by calling the President “Old Slappy”. And small can’t call in the cavalry to save their butts. These things are all true but there are ways around all these problems, and the truth is players and readers alike feel empowered by powerful characters. Unless you really really want to tell an epic saga of zero to hero, let them either be in or connect to the corridors of power from step one. And even if you do want that saga, lay the lines in advance and put obstacles in it instead of trying to draw the lines in later.
2. Two Plots Are Better than One
Leonard Bernstein said “To achieve great things two things are needed: a plan and not enough time”. To achieve great plots, two things are needed: a question, and too many answers. Fifth Element has one of those lovely genre fiction macguffins: magic stones that contain the ultimate power to destroy (or maybe conquer?) the universe. In fact, it has TWO of them – Leelu and the other four. Two macguffins are better than one. And it has two bad guys trying to get both things – the Mangalores and Zorg. A lesser story would have had Zorg and the Mangalores fall out in Act Three, helping the good guys escape disaster. This story has them fall out in Act One, thus ensuring chaos reigns. There’s also the fact that the government has a plan, but Dallas has a better plan, meaning at the airport there are four people trying to be Korben Dallas. It’s not just funny, it’s exciting. It feels like the stakes are huge and that anything can happen, which means luck and coincidence and outlandishness can have more of a leash to play with for storytelling.
There’s an old GM saw that if you give players enough rope, they’ll hang themselves with it, and sometimes GMs worry about this. After all, if arguing over how to open a door can cause your game to come to a halt for three hours, giving them a complex, interwoven plot can be certain death. So there’s a tendency to go for simple, knowing the players will complicate things. That’s a decent instinct but the truth is that to a fair extent players LIKE being confused and, as shown in the film, narrative thrives in confusion. Crossed plots are full of an exponential amount of opportunities than uncrossed ones, and those opportunities are player handholds. Players adore playing one enemy off against the other, and knowing that one big fight is not the end because the other group are still out there gives them a sense of pacing and scope. Don’t fear confusion, it is the narrative equivalent of a target-rich environment. So always: don’t stop at one macguffin, one goal, one bad guy, one good guy: two are better than one.
3. Farce is Your Friend
The extension of crossed paths is of course the glory of farce. Now, this is a personal observation, to be fair: farce is my favourite genre of all time, and one reason I adore the Fifth Element is that it uses farce over and over again, from the aforementioned airport scene to the ticket argument with the beds and the fridge in Korben’s apartment (literally bedroom farce) to Zorg going back for the bomb to making out in the radiation chamber at the end. Farce is even in the Zorg strangulation scene and the little red button scene. Comedy is the sauce of the action movie’s hotdog, and most films try to do it with quips and dialogue stings, but farce is better. Why Hollywood doesn’t use it more is hard to say: it might be that America lacks a great cinematic tradition of farce, whereas the Europeans have it in their DNA. Let me know in the comments if you can think of great farce moments in American genre films. Hans’ impersonation in Die Hard is the only one I can come up with, and it only barely counts as farce because we the audience know (or think we know) more than the character. When John reveals he was Always In On It, it throws farce away.
So why is farce so important? It’s not just because it’s funny, but because of HOW it is funny. Farce relies on the audience knowing and seeing things that the characters do not – but of course the actors can. This plays at the tension between the fourth wall, encouraging us to enjoy our omniscience as we simultaneously insert ourselves into the characters’ experience, getting the dual effect of narrative at the same time. I brought up theatre before because RPGs are so close to theatre; theatre forces you to accept the story as true while also being aware of the inherent lie because you can see people a few feet away from you; RPGs take that one step further and make you both audience and actor at the same time. So naturally theatre ideas like farce flourish in it. (This, by the way, is one of the reasons GMs like to GM: we get all the farce because we get to see what the bad guys are doing as well.) You might think farce will cut into your sense of tone but there’s really no tone out there that can’t benefit from a joke now and then, and dramatic, tragic farce, where we know the horrifying outcome but the character is still hoping for the best has a special kind of sharpness. Use it.
4. Always Be Running Out – but Not Empty
The Fifth Element is epic, outlandish, grand-guignol, grandiose, but it still feels grounded. You can still connect to it. And it’s not done, really, with a blue-collar everyday schmo – Korben Dallas kind of fits and is confused by things, but it actually does it in other, more subtle ways. It does it with little moments of reality: going for McDonalds, getting a drink at a bar, having noodles from the noodle airship. We’ll talk a bit more about this in the next installment, but all of these tend to tie into another grounding trope: everything is running out and running down. This works on a setting level – the garbage strike at the airport adds so much depth to the setting in the same way the worn-out scuffs on Luke’s speeder made Star Wars – but it works on a character and plot level as well. We instantly sympathise with Korben because he’s only got one more spot left on his licence. He’s trying to cut out smoking. He’s only got one match left – and that is what sells us the miraculous save at the end. If the box of matches had been full, the movie would not have worked. (On an even wider level, everyone running out of things can give desperate settings real fire, see point 3 here.)
And it’s not just Korben: the Mangalores almost win by blowing up Leelu’s ship and all that’s left is a tiny hand. We often note that the bomb should only have a few seconds left to disarm it but forget that not just time is a resource. Likewise, in RPGs we often can’t rely on the dice to come through on that last second roll, or our last chip spent to give us the success we need, but remember there are other resources. That’s why it’s good to have crit failures be out of ammo or your weapon breaks. But a better idea even then that is leave them with one bullet or a sword that will break on the NEXT hit. Don’t have all their equipment be lost in the explosion or shipwreck when you can give them one torch and one ration instead. The wand of fireballs should never have more than 1d3 charges. The cop shouldn’t be kicked off the force but have one last chance. Scarcity makes you value things, not non-existence. Don’t take away their toys, limit them instead.
5. Let Them Take Out the Mooks
Mooks are the subject of much discussion. They’re one of the biggest tropes-turned-mechanic in gaming, the most visible example of narrative creeping into simulation. So let’s be clear here: I’m not talking about stats. I’m not talking about if things have low hit points. What I’m talking about is that some characters exist, or should exist in your games, to be taken down. The Fifth Element is actually one of the best examples of D&D (and D&D style roleplaying) put on film because it does this. The Mangalores are orcs. They’re big, dumb, stupid warriors who exist in the story to get killed by the heroes. People have written epics about how stormtroopers have families or back-justified them as clones but nobody cares about Mangalores. And maybe that’s because we’re never supposed to be intimidated by them. They’re written consciously as fodder. They’re not un-dangerous but they have a sense of the theatrical about them; their look and feel tells us they’re supposed to fall down. And the same is true of the guy at the door after the c-c-c-c-cash. We know straight away he’s supposed to fail. He is written and shot and performed as someone the hero will defeat. And he owns it. His performance is magnificent and we love him for it. (And I’m fairly sure Willis almost breaks character in the line about the hat.)
Why does this scene matter? It’s not just to establish Korben as a bad-ass and a guy with a military background. It’s a pressure release. Things are about to get hellish. Korben’s running out of everything and he’s about to get thrown into the worst day of his life and then into an epic space war. He needs story beats where he wins and wins EASILY. So do your players. The old serial westerns – which modern genre fiction are mostly based on even though we don’t know it – used to do this all the time: in the first act some nobody in the bar would pick on the hero to tell us about the hero but also to let the hero (and the audience) get one in on the easy setting. It’s the one-two punch: the first one being easy makes the next one being hard feel much harder. It’s tempting as GMs – and lots of systems encourage it – to hit the players as hard as possible. Especially since, with four or five brains against one, they ALWAYS have the upper hand. Be sure to lowball them sometimes deliberately, in an encounter or in bad guy design. They will thank you for it.
All of this is really about pacing. When farce and crossed plots are going on, pacing gets out of hand pretty quickly. Things happen fast and nobody knows what’s going on, and the next thing you know the president calls you to save the earth. You have to put in downbeats to make that all make sense and give the audience/players a chance to breathe. They breathe out when they get the easy kill on the mooks. And they breathe a big breath in when things are running out. Then you ramp up the confusion again so they forget to breathe for a while. That’s also what dice are for, of course: breathe in when the GM tells you the stakes, hold your breath as the dice rattles around in chaos, and then breathe out when you hit or the bad guy goes down. As with your dice, so with your narrative.