** SPOILER ALERT: this article reveals key plot points from 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE **
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE is an object lesson in the canny use of scale and stakes. It’s also a brilliant example of the use of scope, one of the most effective – but often neglected – weapons in the writer’s armoury, especially in horror and sci-fi stories.
In terms of metaphor and allegory, all story by its very nature represents in microcosm the experiences of a particular section of humanity (or all of humanity) because this is from where story engagement derives. A single-genre comedy, drama or tragedy extrapolates psychology, thoughts, feelings and sensations from the human condition, then distils them till their potency is at the highest level possible.
But there are some stories in which a contained scope adds another level of meaning – and engagement. In stories that use the supernatural, the apocalyptic, the fantastical or magical realism, focussed scope can add layers of intrigue, suspense, plot obfuscation/revelation and enhanced psychological and emotional connection with the characters.
In CLOVERFIELD, the scope is already fairly narrow as we follow an ensemble of characters in their attempt to survive an alien invasion. It soon becomes clear what’s going on. The invasion effects everyone. So the story combines the immediate life/death polarity of stakes for the ensemble with the diffuse life/death polarity of stakes for everyone on the planet.
Compare this with the stakes in a story like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS or THE HOST, in which the stakes for the key characters are life/death while the stakes for everyone else is a kind of living death in which one’s body survives, but one’s mind does not. The tonality and themes are immediately different from that of CLOVERFIELD. Because the mind and/or ‘spirit’ are at stake, these stories are at their best when they are about the mind and the ‘spirit’ and use a cerebral and/or spiritual/romantic tone.
In terms of scale, CLOVERFIELD focuses on New York City, though it eventually becomes clear that the entire world is under attack. The film plays the same game with scope as its baby sister, focussing on just one part of a much larger area, and initially deceiving both the characters and the audience about what is really going on. INDEPENDENCE DAY – in story terms a disaster/sci-fi splice –is at the far end of the continuum in terms of scope, stakes and scale.
If the global disaster genre exists at one extreme – it’s a genre in which stakes, scale and scope are at their highest – the personal drama is at the opposite extreme (it’s narrative power, of course, dwells elsewhere).
No matter how high the diffuse stakes, there must always be some kind of immediate stakes, because this is from where much of the audience’s engagement will be generated. In other words, a contained story about an immortal trying to save an entire world, but in which we never engage with any of those people whose lives are at stake, would only work in terms of cerebral – or theological – engagement (and could make for an intellectually-engaging sci-fi story).
The Devil In The Detail
In END OF DAYS, Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has to save Christine York (Robin Tunney) from the devil. The scope is New York City (notice the obvious associations with how Christine is named). At immediate stake is Christine. At stake overall are the souls of everyone on earth, which means the diffuse scale is planetary.
In LET US PREY, the allusively-named Six arrives in a small Scottish town to reap the souls of sinners. It’s suggested that his raison d’être is to do this on a global scale. But the film’s narrative is focussed tight on an ensemble of cops and suspects centred on the town’s remote police station. So the diffuse stakes and ultimate scale are comparable to END OF DAYS. But the scope is radically different.
PRIMER is another benchmark use of contained scope. Two engineers create a means of time-travel. At immediate stake are Aaron and Abe’s psychological wellbeing; later it’s their lives. As the story ends, Aaron is intent on exploiting what he’s learnt – to the detriment of others and, by extrapolation, potentially to the detriment of everyone. So although the stakes and scale are very low at the outset, by story’s end they are far higher – and potentially as high as they could possibly be.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE sets-up its ultra-narrow scope from the outset. And the writing is brilliantly clever in the way it hooks the protagonist’s outer and inner journeys into this massively-compressed scope.
The entire first act focusses on Michelle. We see no-one else at all till the introduction of Howard in Act Two. As with all truly great horror stories, the protagonist has a dramatic problem that is seemingly quite separate from the monster/s (though, of course, the two are analogous in psychological terms).
On the emotional surface, Michelle is running away from her fiancée. In the psychological depths, she is running away from herself. Her physical isolation in Act One achieves paranoia and uncanniness in terms of genre, but also highlights her emotional and psychological isolation. Indeed, in the very first scene she is entirely oblivious to the sound effect/jolt from outside (clearly connected to the invasion) because she is on her smartphone arguing with her fiancée. Her narrow focus is shutting-out everything else.
Once Michelle is captive in Howard’s bunker, the story adds two more characters but retains its contained scope. There is intrigue in terms of what exactly is going on outside – moving through the gears from nothing at all, through a virus outbreak to a full-blown alien invasion. It’s not till the final scenes that we see evidence of the true scale of the story – and its massively diffuse stakes.
The final beat is a truly exceptional piece of writing, artfully fusing together an imminent widening of scope, the final pay-off of Michelle’s career aspirations, the attainment of her inner need (to stop running away) and outer want (to do something meaningful with her life) – though not in a way she ever could have expected.
The story very cleverly gives Michelle a dramatic need and a dramatic want in addition to the classic outer want of all horror films: to survive. There is also a perfect thematic symbiosis of plot and character arc (with a wonderfully playful psychological gloss): a character who wants nothing more but to run away and hide is forcibly made to run away and hide – and realises that this isn’t actually what she wants or needs after all. It’s aversion therapy at its most extreme – and its wittiest.
So next time you re/write a story in the sci-fi, supernatural or fantasy genres, think about stakes (immediate and diffuse – and the interplay between the two), scope and scale – individually and in relation to each other. It’s a triangle of elements that can provide endless possibilities for both story analysis and story creation.