The Brief Tilt, The Infinite Platform

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In the Level 6 class I’m TA’ing for we recently got into a discussion of platform versus tilt. And you guessed it! I have some opinions about them!

Platform is the opening of a narrative show, where the audience is introduced to this particular world—the people in it, how they behave day to day, what normal looks like in this universe, etc. Tilt is when something changes; tilt is what ignites the story, sets it in motion.

For narrative improv, the traditional story structure (“story spine”) looks like this:

1. Once upon a time…
2. And everyday…
3. Until one day…
4. And because of that…
5. And because of that…
6. And because of that…
7. Until finally…
8. And ever since that day…

Using this structure to tell a story, platform comprises 1 and 2. And the tilt comes in the middle of line 3. The rest of the show is about establishing and exploring the newly altered platform.

A tilt does just what its name implies: it  tilts the universe, sets it off-kilter in one way or another, and the remainder of the story is about re-establishing balance, setting things normal again (if not always “better” or “worse” than before).

The tilt is critical, but it doesn’t have to be long. And frankly, the initial platform doesn’t have to be too long either.

Consider Jerry Maguire:

Show me the ... funny?!?!?

Show me the … funny?!?!?

The movie starts by showing us super sports agent Jerry Maguire visiting one of his clients in the hospital, who’s just suffered an on-the-field injury. We get a sense that Jerry is a slick character, a douche Type A personality, a go-getter who’s all about the money and the power. But the very next scene shows us Jerry, after being called out by his injured client’s son for being a shit head, having a major crisis of conscience. He questions his profession and his contribution to the world. He feels like a greasy little asshole, and so he stays up all night composing a manifesto, a mission statement for himself and all of his fellow sports agents. He proposes they abandon their money-grubbing paradigm and adopt a more balanced, fair, honest approach to their work.

Needless to say, his manifesto (which could threaten the profit margins of his colleagues) doesn’t go over well. He’s ostracized. He quickly loses everything he valued and defined himself by.

So within five minutes of the movie, the tilt has happened. Writing that mission statement was the tilt, and we don’t get more than 2-3 minutes of platform.

Is that enough platform though? I’d say absolutely. And here’s why: Because we know Jerry’s type. We don’t need 20 minutes of seeing what a smooth-talking douchenozzle Jerry is because we’ve seen it all before. We know the type of guy he is. And while yes, every human being is a unique snowflake, we’re also a type:

The sleazy car salesman, the altruistic Stepford wife, the beleaguered workman who can’t catch a break, the divorced dad trying to connect with his kids, a single woman who feels like she’s in a life rut, a nerd who’s uncomfortable in crowds, the proper English butler who lives a monastic lifestyle, the shallow pop star who thrives on adrenaline, the two-faced politician, the prodigy whose parents don’t understand her, the delusional would-be inventor who’s tinkering away in his garage all day, the surfer guy who emits positive vibes, the hardened detective who’s seen it all, the manipulative ingénue who wants to be famous, etc.

You get the idea. There are hundreds and thousands of types, and we, as lifelong consumers of stories, can recognize most of them very quickly. Jerry’s fancy suit, his fast manner of talking, the things he talks about (money, fame, ambition), and even his haircut tell us within seconds that this guy’s a bit of a bullshitter. We may not know many details about his life—his name, his marital status, his cocktail preference—but we could probably make pretty accurate guesses. But it doesn’t really matter, because we know his type.

And, once the audience knows a character’s type (or at least thinks they do), we can get on to the business of tilting pretty quickly. We don’t need to relentlessly remind the audience “this is frustrated nerd!” or “this lady is a tough ole’ broad!”

Instead, we can now have fun getting to know the character’s unique personality quirks and foibles.

Platform is important. It’s where the audience gets introduced to the world and the characters, thus ensuring that the audience gives a shit when our hero’s world gets tilted. But the platform shouldn’t take up too much time—maybe 3-5 minutes in a typical 30-minute show. Play big, clear, bold characters from the moment the lights come up and you can quickly get to the fun business of tilting and dealing with the tilt.

2 Comments

  1. Kevin Miller (@happywaffle) on April 22, 2013 at 8:54 am

    Nicely written. Gonna share with my students.

    • Andrew on April 22, 2013 at 4:13 pm

      I depend on you, Kevin, to keep the genius of this blog alive. 🙂

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