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The Story Structure of Revenge: BAIT, by Bret Easton Ellis
Let’s set the mood.
In July of 2023, stories of shark attacks flooded the news…
Monday and Tuesday saw a spate of shark attacks off the coast of New York’s Long Island that reportedly left five people injured, including two 15-year-olds.
Videos and photos of recent great white shark sightings (...) take the historic step of closing the popular Nantucket beach Great Point to swimming.
So far, 19 people have been bitten by sharks in American waters this year, which experts fear could be the beginning of a new record.
Nurse Delia Yriarte, 42, was bitten by a shark while snorkeling near the Galapagos Islands. She received medical attention and fortunately did not lose her leg
These stories are harrowing and tragic. But they interest people. These stories became international news for a reason.
The oceans are some of the only places on Earth where nature can still scare us. And I think, for some reason, people find that endlessly interesting.
BAIT is a script by Bret Easton Ellis from 2011 about horrible people getting what they deserve with the help of some sharks.
The script interests me because Bret Easton Ellis wrote some incredible novels and short stories. However, after switching over to writing for movies and T.V., he’s had a lot less success. Only a few of his scripts were made into movies, and only one of those turned out well (in my opinion).
So, I’m curious: are his scripts good, and they’re just being implemented poorly? Or are the scripts just not that good?
I dug around online for a bit and tracked down a single script. This is what I found.
What happens, basically, is there’s a guy named Cole who gets “mistreated” by a group of students (to put it lightly). This person then arranges to be on a boat with his abusers the next day. He helps steer the boat towards some shark infested waters, and, well, let’s just say he has plans.
Do you know anybody, or know of anybody, who pushes your buttons? Somebody who needs to get what they deserve? Do you have nostalgia for shark attack movies like Jaws? Are you curious about how the author of American Psycho would write a revenge tale at sea?
If any of this applies, read on.
I’ll try to be light on spoilers, and will jump right into story structure.
“Movies Are About Structure”
Bret once said,
Scripts are about structure and novels are about consciousness.
In that case, what is the basic structure of this script?
There is a cycle that repeats twice in the movie. Its job it is to create necessity, and specifically, the necessity that some person or group needs to be punished because they are the worst.
In the first cycle, we meet those worthless students who, first, are stereotypical jerks, and second, who “mistreat” Cole pretty severely. These people are paper thin stereotypes, aggressive brutes who should be in jail, and their girlfriends, rather than turning them in, go home with them afterwards. They have no redeeming grace at all, nothing to give the hint that they have depth or charisma. Nothing for the audience to latch onto.
I hate these people. I can’t explain how mad I was. This story is garbage, I thought at the time.
I actually had to stop reading and take a short break. The only reason I came back was because I hated them so much, I had to go back to make sure they didn’t have a happy ending in the story.
This is the first checkbox complete: the audience now has to finish the story out of pure hatred. We are now invested, no matter how unhappy we are after going through the first part of the story.
Here’s the note I wrote:
I’m only reading because I want all these people boiled in acid
We really need Cole to step up here and destroy those pieces of work.
This is interesting, isn’t it? The hook that is being used to invest you in the story is one that makes you really unhappy and uncomfortable.
There are two other examples of this I can think of off the top of my head, and I found each of those worked well also—both are video games.
The first is Scratches, an old first person horror game where you inherit a house and spend a few days at it. There is nothing to do. You are bored mindless. You are, in fact, so bored that you become desperate to explore the house. You find a room you can’t get into, and next thing you know, getting into that room becomes your goal in life. You will move heaven and earth to get inside, because you will go mad from boredom otherwise. Your character goes to extreme lengths to investigate, and you are so fully in sync with this. You’re both completely invested in getting to the bottom of it all, and, next thing you know, there is a mystery to solve.
The second example of using pain as a hook is one of the legend of Zelda games. I forget which, possibly the wii one. You are a bored kid in a village where everything is boring. It plays out the same way: out of desperation, you start exploring, and things go from there.
In both cases, it was majestic.
So, yeah: it’s a bold choice to make the audience so uncomfortable, but I find it can have a huge payoff.
Back to structure.
So, the students need to die in a fire. Cole is going to make them pay. We NEED him to make them pay. We’ll do anything at this point, including continue reading this really unpleasant story, to make sure it happens. But then something happens.
Cole begins to seek out his revenge, and… we learn that he’s somehow worse than the people he’s getting revenge against.
This is quite a feat, and I don’t want to spoil the details, but you eventually start to feel sick and even become empathetic to the students he’s going after.
These students are worthless psychos, but, I mean, this is too far. Somebody has to stop this freak. It’s getting uncomfortable to read again.
This is the second cycle playing itself out: the audience is now invested in making sure that Cole is stopped.
The audience is now rooting for the horrible people from earlier!
So, the first cycle was about creating a need in the audience for revenge; and the second cycle was about creating a need in the audience to get revenge against the avenger.
Does Cole get what’s coming to him? Can’t say. That would be a spoiler.
“Novels Are About Consciousness”
If the success of a movie depends on its structure, does that mean that’s all there is to a good movie?
His speciality, from his life as an author, is character writing. He’s an expert at nailing extreme voice and vividly portraying the sorts of people that you can’t even imagine in your nightmares.
His other speciality, which this structure actually reinforces really well: he seems to enjoy making you empathize with the most horrible people he can imagine, while at the same time allowing you to detest them.
He doesn’t try to convince you that, boo hoo, this villain is a victim. He doesn’t try to spin the person’s bad actions as actually being justified, at least in their own mind. He doesn’t paint a picture of a world where different people have conflicting values and needs, yet resources are limited so conflict is tragic yet unavoidable—that’s more of an Orson Scott Card thing.
Ellis makes villains, and then makes you see them with empathy and sometimes even appreciation, while letting you simultaneously know they are villains and that the world would be a lot better if they were dead.
These people are so evil, you can scarcely believe it.
Suspension of Disbelief
Speaking of scarcely believing how evil these people are, suspension of disbelief is handled in a really unusual way in this story.
There’s limited foreshadowing, but when things happen, they seem so totally random that I wanted to stop reading several times. Except, I was invested in making sure somebody got what was coming to them, so I kept going.
Later, the character traits that caused the unbelievable behaviours get reinforced, and the character continues to act in a way consistent with their earlier actions.
Somehow, by doubling down on the things that seem crazy, the audience eventually accepts what happened as not just plausible, but as real.
You go through mini-cycles of 1) see event, 2) think to yourself, “no way, that is ridiculous,” 3) the character acts so consistently, or even doubles down on what they did, so that 4) you become a believer in the story, like you just went through a mini period of shock and denial that ends with acceptance.
But your acceptance happens after the fact.
Here are some notes I wrote while reading this script, before I changed my mind and decided it did actually feel real/believable later on:
But I can’t criticize it. It worked wonders in the end, and suspension of disbelief ended up being great. I really wish I knew more about why this worked. To repeat: suspension of disbelief, by the end, was really good.
Some Miscellaneous Notes
Voice and prose style: it’s a script, so there is none. There is still a sense of authorial voice and style in other senses, but it’s not quite in the words themselves. It’s weird reading a script where those things are mostly absent after reading novels for so many months
There’s almost zero descriptions of mannerisms, inner-character, or body language. Those things are left up to the actors and director. So, if the actors and director don’t do a great job of interpreting the script, I suspect you’d end up with shallow results. And, actually, some of his movies feel like this. I suspect the subtlety in his work requires an especially good director to translate
Lazy character design: why med school? Can our sympathetic female lead not go to school for something that isn’t the most stereotypical major of all time for sympathetic smart female leads? Why not Agricultural Science or Chemistry or Art History or Military Science—anything, really. Med school is such a trope at this point
I read all 100 pages in a single sitting, minus a break to temporarily rage-quit. I almost never do that. What I’m saying: the need to see these people punished or stopped was so strong that it glued me to my seat. This was a really good read
Taking advantage of (theoretical) captive audiences: at a theatre, you sit down and you stay there for 90-9000 minutes (depending on how ambitious the production team was). That means you can have a slow opening, one that doesn’t have a super strong hook right off the bat. With movies in theatres, this is pretty safe. Other media forms, the audience is more prone to giving up after a slow opening and leaving to do something else
This movie was never made. It looks like it’s had a variety of production people and directors connected to the project, but even twelve years later, there’s no movie. If it ever gets made, I’m going to see it twice though. My wish list: cast Edward Norton as Cole, and Brad Pitt (from Se7en) as the asshole jock, directed by Damien Leone.
That’s an awful lot to say about a movie that does not exist. If you can find the screenplay online, check it out. I think it’s great.
I hope you found this analysis interesting!
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