The Pirates of the Caribbean Principle

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There have been several times where someone pitched an idea for a story or musical to me that went something like this:

"So this guy is an artist, right?  And he's generally a nice guy but he has a little bit of a fear of commitment.  And he's trying to figure out whether to be true to his art or maybe live in this commercial space.  What do you think?"

If I had been totally honest, I would have said something like, "Why, that sounds like the most excruciatingly boring concept for a story I've heard in quite some time!"  I probably didn't say that, because I am so conflict-averse, but I was thinking it.  But why?  Why is that particular idea so boring and awful, and why are such ideas so depressingly common?

Is it that the ideas are trite?  I'm not so sure that explains it - "trite" ideas can be "classic" if you like them enough.  

My money's on something else - notice the number of qualifying words in that pitch: "generally," "little bit," "maybe."  Even the "but."  It's wishy-washy, middling.  Maybe the writer is trying to write what he or she knows, or express a personal experience, but it's never clear why anybody else is supposed to care.  It lacks extremeness.  Don't tell me a story about something ordinary.  Tell me a story about something on the edge.

I call this the Pirates of the Caribbeans Principle, after the classic Disney ride.  (I'm quite sure I didn't think of this, but I can't remember who I stole it from, so I'll just take the credit for the time being.)  A theme park attraction is under constraints that a novel or play or even short story isn't - a vignette has to make an emotional impact in the 10 seconds that a boat is gliding by, with no guaranteed beginning or end.  The pirate has to repeatedly dunk the town mayor in the well so that whether the boat sees him going down or coming up, it makes just as much sense and is just as emotionally effective.  Unless you want to require riders to go through over and over again, it has to be comprehensible, clear, and impactful almost instantly.  This is quite the design challenge, but I feel like it would make other art worlds vastly better to try to adhere to the same constraints - including the musical theater and game design worlds.

In fact, musical theater and game design both have been under such constraints in the past.  Early games didn't have a lot of resources to store pictures and text, and musicals had to get the story told in the short moment that the curtain was down, before the next 20-minute dance number came on.  But as technology and traditions changed, they've been freed up from the need to make their point and get out, mostly to their detriment.

So without actual constraints, designers in these media will have to self-impose.  One of the ways to do this is by encouraging extremeness.

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If you actually got out of the boat and stood next to one of the Audio-Animatronic pirates, he would seem mighty grotesque - look at that face.  It's a ludicrous cartoon character rendered in three dimensions.  But from the vantage point of the boat gliding by, that pirate's face communicates everything that needs to be communicated quickly and powerfully.  

The point, by the way, is not that exaggeration precludes subtlety and mystery - in fact, it can help both.  Subtlety in the absence of intensity just feels like nothing.  Nor does exaggeration automatically guarantee value - what's being exaggerated matters, too.  Exaggeration carries a risk.  Exaggerate something dumb and you get something VERY dumb.  But if everything is middling and wishy-washy, you've got no point of interest, no emotional impact.  So you might as well take that risk.  Failure to take that risk is often disguised as sophistication or realism when it's actually creative cowardice.

Musical theater songwriter Stephen Sondheim likes to quote the "less is more" principle, and he's right to do so - but your choice of what "less" to use matters, or else the "less" really is less!  Consider the famous auction scene from Pirates.  You know the redhead lady is enjoying strutting her stuff, and the gag lands with only a line or two of dialog.  In fact, it lands even if you can't hear any of the dialog, because the visuals are so exaggerated and so clear.  Your eye immediately jumps to the lady in red, standing in the center, and then off to the lady in blue behind her and the pirate auctioneer.  As you realize the absurdity of what's going on, the humor response kicks in.  The colors. lighting and staging draw your eyes instantly to what matters.  What's important is exaggerated and spotlit, and what's not is pushed into the dark background of the nighttime Caribbean village.

In fact, clarity is the other important part of the Pirates of the Caribbean Principle, along with extremeness.  They mutually reinforce each other - things that are interesting receive more focus, things that are boring are sent to the shadows - creating breathing space, and allowing the interesting things to be accentuated by virtue of contrast.

It might be instructive to consider an attraction that has extremeness but severely lacks clarity - the thoroughly mediocre Universal attraction called "Revenge of the Mummy."  The ride system is reasonably entertaining, the special effects are mostly all right, but the whole thing is paced so rapidly that it's never really clear what's going on, and the whole experience feels like a muddy mess. (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has similar issues.)

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Or consider a lot of modern games, like Donkey Kong Country Returns for the Wii, where so much junk is happening on the screen at once - highly polished, good-looking junk certainly - that it's hard to focus on what's important.  In game design, the concept of putting things in the background that should be in the background is even more important than other media, because busy visuals confuse gameplay and makes concentration a chore.  That giant blimp going by in the background might look cool, but it has nothing to do with the actual game, so it effectively functions as a banner ad on a Geocities page, drawing the player's attention in multiple directions when it needs to be focused and clear (and also irritating the crap out of the player).

This is why the dark areas in between the vignettes of the Pirates ride are just as important as the vignettes themselves.  They create pacing, provide contrast, establish atmosphere and tone, and allow you to focus on what's important.  Without the breathing spaces, the exaggeration becomes perverse and overwhelming.

So if you're going to tell me a story, make it about something on the edge - a real hero, a threatening villain, a dire situation, a beautiful world.  Like Tolkein's Middle Earth, make something more than reality typically affords.  And then once you know what's important, clear out the cruft.  Communicate what matters and then get off the stage.  Then you too can be as awesome as a ride about pirates.