Writing Challenge: Pre-Existing Life

Giving myself a daily exercise to write every day has been working very well form that muscle and overall creativity, however my technology situation has not been as smooth. Due to having to work on a broken laptop, it’s been taking me longer to get posts up. I have WordPress on my phone, so I may have to switch to that, but for now we’ll just see how it goes. I just know that I want to get these out earlier in the day so that it makes it easier to mull over the day’s exercise. Anyways… Pre-Existing Life!

To understand this sequence, we’re going to look at one of my favorites from recent memory, “Birds of Prey”. This film had a tall order. It had to appeal to fans and detractors of “Suicide Squad”. It had to appeal to people who have zero DC knowledge. It also had to help people understand WHY someone with a doctorate would become so consumed with someone as clearly vile as The Joker. This movie does all of those things, while also giving a great take of “a day in the life”, a kind of opening sequence that is most common in storytelling because it gives the best impact for the sequence that comes next to really hit home. Now, if you haven’t seen “Birds of Prey”, I would recommend watching the first ten minutes of a few of your favorite movies and asking yourself what makes them so strong in setting up your favorite stories. You also could just read this anyway, because MAYBE you’ll realize that missing out on this movie in theaters was a mistake and now you’ll watch it at home during the quarantine since they’re releasing it early. Since it’s just the first sequence of the film, I’m not spoiling much.

Now, before we get into the actual sequence breakdown, I want to go over format. Normally, when I break down a script on here I do the whole thing and so, only list the major beats. Since we’re looking at individual sequences, I’m going to list all the beats. What is a beat?

A beat is an action and a reaction.

A lot of times when people use the word “beat” they’re just referring to a very palpable moment. Those moments are only palpable though because someone is reacting to something that just happened. If someone pulls a gun in a scene, that’s a moment not a beat. If someone pulls a gun and everyone in the moment takes a step back and tries to calm the gunman down, THEN it’s a beat. So I’m going to list all of the beats and I’m going to break them down into the four parts of a sequence: Set Up, Action, Climax, Resolution. Occasionally, resolutions can also be a set-up to the next sequence (which we’ll see in today’s example). I’ll bold the most important one or two beats, the one that defines that step in the sequence.

The Breakdown

Set Up
– In a cartoon sequence, we meet a young Harley getting ignored by her parents. She’s oblivious and continues to clamor for attention.
– Sick of Harley’s pestering, her father drops Harley off with nuns. She wants to prove her value to people because of this and goes to college where she gets a bunch of degrees.
– Harley mentions all the people she’s dating (including a redhead that is probably an Ivy reference), but they all break her heart, which is incredibly upsetting.
– She meets the Joker at Arkham and falls in love, dedicating her life to him.
– Harley loves being the Joker’s queen and is despondent when he breaks up with her.

Action
– Wanting to prove herself someone who can stand on her own, Harley gets an apartment and a dog. When the pound owner hits on Harley, she feeds him to the dog (hyena).
– She takes up roller derby. Calls out for her teammates to “whip” her, which they do. She crashes into an opponent and punches them in the face before going on to continue the race.
– At Roman Sionis’s club, Roman’s driver is rude to Harley, so she jumps on the driver’s leg and breaks it.
– Roman checks in to see what’s going on. He wants to punish Harley for hurting his employee (which we hear broken down in psychotherapy talk from Harley), but instead asks about The Joker, whom Harley says is not joining her tonight.

Climax
– Harley goes for margaritas with some girlfriends. When she overhears them talking about how they think Harley will crawl back to Joker, Harley drops the drinks and takes off.
– Harley goes for a walk to sulk about life. She spots ACE Chemicals (where her journey with Joker began) and blows it up with a stolen truck.

Resolution
– Renee Montoya’s work is interrupted by the sound of an explosion. She races over to the sight and, seeing Harley’s necklace, announces that it’s “open season” for Harley Quinn.

We learn everything we need to know about Harley Quinn and what kind of movie this is in this sequence. Now, I may have missed beats because I was working largely off memory, but what is listed and the order they happen in are correct. I have read the script, but it is different that what ended up on screen. In the film there are additions to this sequence and some of the opening moments are saved for later in the film. The overall amount of information here and the setup/climax of the sequence is all here.

So what information were we given? We know Harley has daddy issues having been given up for adoption and we know that those issues manifest in her constant desire for a relationship and obsession with the Joker. We also know that she tried to focus her attentions on school, but they always went back to her love life, though she retains all of her doctor knowledge in her life of crime. We know that Harley has the skills to fend for herself but know idea how to do it. She’s smart and can fight, but she doesn’t think things through, and we see this through all of the Action beats as she keeps hurting other people with zero regard for their feelings or the ramifications. In fact, there are no ramifications for Harley because no one knows that she and the Joker broke up. This is why the next sequence does a great job of bringing back all these action beats as references and it hits Harley to her core BECAUSE her actions have consequences. Also, we know through the use of animation, the final beat (where we time jump a little to get to Renee), and the narration from an unreliable narrator (Harley), that this film is not going to appear to play by any rules.

This film had a tall order. As someone who knew Harley from “Batman: The Animated Series”, I always liked the character, but I never understood her backstory and how she could be so taken by The Joker (I know he’s skilled, but come ON). This film sold me though by establishing her sad love life as and on-going issue for her. The film also does a great job of acknowledging her selfishness but not trying to make her a good guy by the end of the film. Cathy Yan (director), Christina Hodson (writer), and Margot Robbie (actor) all had a very strong and cohesive vision of this character and what her arc would be. By establishing who Harley is and the tone of the film so strongly here, they allow the audience to just hang back and enjoy the ride in a way that is fitting to the character and the larger world.

So for your own Pre-Existing Life sequences… think about what your protagonist’s daily life looks life. What’s their routine? When something small comes up that could get in the way of that routine, how do they respond? The goal is to set up what their emotional arc is and if there is a strong want/desire for something that we’ll see play out later on. At the same time, you want to make sure that your beats will play into whatever tone/aesthetic you’re trying to pull off. This is tough to do on the page, so really look at even your basic word choice in these beats so that you can remember the kind of vibe you’re trying to set when you go back to it later on.

Happy Writing!

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