Sunday, June 30, 2013

Second Annual Summer Hiatus

Well, folks, I toyed with the idea of just plowing straight through, but no, I need to get some real screenwriting done, finish the book, and maybe even some other projects, such as a play...

So here we are again.  I’m very glad that I came back from my last summer hiatus, as it’s been a great year, but it’s time to take some more time off.

I fully intend to have the manuscript of the book finished before I return.  The questions then become: do I self-publish or not, and, either way, do I go the route of e-book or print book?  Obviously, if I self-publish an e-book, you’ll see the results much soon, but the other options will take longer to varying degrees.

Once again, I intend to return next September.  Let’s hope everything goes according to plan…

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I Can't Decide...

Well, folks, sorry for the lack of posts this week, but I can’t decide what to do next.  I’ll let you know on Sunday...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cover (and New Titles) Vote!

A few months ago, I offered you all eleven choices for the title of my book, and got lots of good feedback, so I carefully compiled all the data, totaled up all your favorites…and then rejected them all. The problem was that I started thinking about covers and I realized I needed a title that lent itself to an image.

After a lot more brainstorming I came up with these two titles and whipped up some quick-and-sloppy covers using Google images. Obviously, once I choose one, or something else entirely, I can commission an original photo that serves my purposes more clearly (the cricket could be reading a screenplay… or I could combine the two and have a rejected slush pile behind the cricket, etc…)


So which title/cover would you be more likely to pick up in a bookstore, if you’d never heard of the blog?  Or do both of these still suck?  Which new direction should I go in?

And here are the matching back covers. You’ll note that I cobbled together a collection of real testimonials, and a credit for each. I’m showing you the quotes, but I’ve blocked out the name and credit for each one, because I gathered these quotes together from various places (some offered them up as testimonials, some didn’t) and I’d have to contact each person to confirm that I’m welcome to use it.  If you recognize your quote, then let me know it that’s all right...and thanks either way!  I’ve left the actual quotes in to ask you: Are these the sort of quotes I should have?  Are they creating the right or wrong impression?  Would they make you want to buy the book? (Click to enlarge, of course)
(And, of course, I haven’t yet attempted to solicit specific individuals for testimonials. One problem is that I’ve had a lot of unsolicited testimonials from published novelists, but none from screenwriters with impressive-sounding credits. Any big-shots out there want to offer one up? I would appreciate it. Click View My Complete Profile at the bottom of the sidebar to find my email button.)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 14: Climax and Epilogue

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This one goes all the way back to Aristotle.  Every story has an end (even if it’s only temporary).
What Human Nature Dictate:
  • In real life, every project (whether it’s a relationship, or a confrontation, or a criminal enterprise) ultimately fails or succeeds, but fiction heightens and compresses these moments, creating something far more definitive and impactful than real-life climaxes, which, let’s face it, are often underwhelming.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Most heroes win, some heroes lose, some lose by winning (Downhill Racer) and some win by losing (Spider-Man, who sacrifices love for higher responsibilities), but in each case the story climaxes and the hero has a catharsis.
  • One reason that many first-time writers insist on writing unhappy endings is that it’s a lot easier to write a story in which the hero fails.  But whether your heroes win or lose, they must see their problem through to its climax.  An unhappy ending is only tragic when the hero loses at the last possible moment (Rick getting the girl and then having to give her away in Casablanca, Michael losing the last bit of his soul when he closes that door in The Godfather, Jack losing his life after saving the girl in Titanic)
Other Examples of Climaxes and Epilogues:
  • Hero defeats villain in most thriller and action movies.
  • Boy gets girl (and vice versa) in most romances. (And also, for that matter, in most action movies, except Spider-Man)
  • The discontented heroes of Sullivan’s Travels and Rushmore (in addition to getting the girl) mature and find more inner peace.
  • The surviving heroes of The Great Escape get dragged back to prison, content in the knowledge that they’ve caused a huge distraction.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Audiences hate movies that don’t climax, but you can use that tool to force them to think. Mutiny on Bounty, like the true story on which it’s based, denies its antagonists a final showdown, forcing the audience to decide for ourselves who’s right.  Limbo does a similar trick when it ends right before the climax.
  • In the case of Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Blazing Saddles, the lack of proper finales are an FU to convention.
  • Killer of Sheep, Funny Ha Ha, and Old Joy are all independent films that end on quiet moments that provide little catharsis, and all three movies are excellent, but it’s notable that all three were self-financed by the filmmakers.
And that’s it!  

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 13: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • I have never seen any other storytelling guru mention this essential step.  It took me years to figure it out, but as soon as I did, I noticed that it happens all the time.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • We always begin a huge project with proposed end in sight, but we rarely finish unless there’s an externally-imposed deadline to kick us in the ass.  And surprise: that’s when we do our best work.  Self-motivation peters out at the worst possible times, but impending doom sharpens the mind.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This moment is necessary to resolve a paradox: the audience wants the hero to be smart and proactive at this point, but it’s still inherently unsympathetic for a hero to fight the final battle “at a time of our choosing” (as George W. Bush would say).  To resolve this paradox, the heroes should be preparing for a final confrontation, but then those plans should be ruined when the antagonist unexpectedly moves up the timeline.
Examples of Timelines Getting Unexpectedly Moved Up:
  • Most famously, George Lucas realized in the Star Wars editing room that the ending wasn’t exciting enough if they simply used the plans to attack the Death Star on their own schedule, so he re-cut and re-dubbed the scene in post to make it appear that the Death Star unexpectedly attacked them first.
  • Joel in Risky Business finds out his parents are coming home early.
  • The heroes of Rear Window and Blue Velvet find that the objects of their voyeurism are coming over to pay them a visit.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs finds herself accidentally dropping in on Buffalo Bill without back-up.
  • …And Goldfinger literally moves up the ticking clock on his nuclear bomb!
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This step gets skipped more often than some of the others (it was skipped in about a quarter of the movies I looked at) and that’s fine.  It’s good to knock the hero off balance one last time, but sometimes the story already has enough momentum, or you have a setting like the Jury Room in 12 Angry Men where, by design, there’s no ticking clock.
  • In some rare cases, it’s more powerful to not only skip this step but to do the opposite.  In movies like Bringing Up Baby and The Apartment, the chaos ends early, and the hero finally gets what he wanted…but does he really want it?  Only when he’s no longer being dragged along by events can he really decide…
Next: The Finale!

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 12: Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This is universally-accepted advice and for good reason.  The number one mistake first time writers make is to have an overly-passive protagonist.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Any recovering addict will tell you that once you stop sabotaging yourself, you still have a long, long way to go to get your life back on track.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Everybody hates a lucky man.  The solution shouldn’t land in the hero’s lap, and it shouldn’t be within easy grasp.  Even at this late point in the story, once the hero has a corrected philosophy, there should still be a long way to go and a short way to get there.
  • This the latest possible moment for the hero to turn proactive: it’s also fine for the hero to become totally proactive starting at step five, or any point in between.
Examples of Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal:
  • Mike in Swingers finally goes out and meets a new girl.
  • Cady in Mean Girls begins to make amends and joins the mathletes.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs decides that the answer must be back in Ohio…
  • Tired of sneaking around, Steve McQueen steals a motor cycle and peels out in The Great Escape
  • Spider-Man and Iron Man stop reacting and go on the hunt for the bad guy. 
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This is usually considered the one unbreakable rule of fiction, but there are rare exceptions: the heroes of Bridesmaids and Witness remain reactive until the end, and the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark suddenly becomes passive in the third act.
  • The first cut of The Terminator included a much bigger proactive turn, but it was cut out in the editing room in order to speed the movie up, and that storyline became the basis for Terminator 2.  In this case, the movie was so exciting that the audience didn’t care.
  • In very rare cases, it can be heroic not to go on the offensive: the dad in Kramer Vs. Kramer could re-double his efforts when he loses his custody case, but he decides that would be too hard on his son. When his wife relents, it feels like he earned it by not fighting. 
Next: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up

Monday, June 17, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 11: The Spiritual Crisis

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • What’s marks the transition from the middle to the end, or from “Act Two” to “Act Three”?  Why is the hero now ready to solve the problem the right way?  Most storytelling gurus are vague on this point.  Joseph Campbell focuses on the “special weapon” and/or “elixir” found in the cave, but more often than not, that should read metaphorically…
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • …because the real secret weapon is self-knowledge.
  • The easy way tends to end in a disaster and loss of safe space, but trying again the hard way is no guarantee of success.  In fact, it often leads to yet another failure.  The difference is that, this time, our eyes are wide open, and we can see why we failed.  Now, we have to face the factor within ourselves that’s causing these failures.
  • On a Freudian Journey (a change arc) the spiritual crisis is the point where heroes realize they need to change.  On a Jungian journey (an individuation arc), this is the point where heroes realize that they have to be true to themselves.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This is the usually the point at which the hero replaces his or her false goal with a true goal, and his or her false philosophy with a corrected philosophy.
Examples of Spiritual Crises:
  • The couple realizes that divorce just isn’t fun anymore in The Awful Truth.
  • The couple decide that they’ll probably split up in Raising Arizona.
  • After admitting he’s not Italian, Dave in Breaking Away visits his father’s quarry and admits he’s not really a stone cutter either.
  • Andy in 40 Year Old Virgin freaks out about selling off his action figures.
  • The heroes of Blue Velvet and Donnie Brasco realize how far they’ve fallen when they each hit a woman.
  • The heroes of Alien and The Fugitive realize that they’ve been betrayed by the people and institutions they believed in.
  • The Spiritual Crisis is quite literal in Witness when the cop and his Amish crush finally kiss.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Perpetual exception James Bond has no spiritual crisis in Goldfinger, but it’s notable that he does force Pussy Galore into a crisis of conscience at this point in the story.  This is similar to many TV shows, where the main character can’t change much, so he or she frequently helps the guest star go through a change arc.
  • In some rare cases, heroes have the spiritual crisis early: Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon has his in the first act, and Sheriff Brody in Jaws has his at the midpoint where he gets slapped…
  • …even more rarely, they have one late: like Taylor in Planet of the Apes who doesn’t abandon his hubris until that famous last shot.
Next: Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal...

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 10: The Hero Tries the Hard Way

Conventional Wisdom:
  • It can be tempting to regard the entire third quarter as a string of betrayals, reversals, and assaults, but it’s important to remember that this is all happening now for a good reason: the hero is finally tackling the problem head on.
What Human Nature Says:
  • As with cleaning your home, tackling the problem means that things have to get worse before they can get better.
  • Trying the hard way should not be instantly-rewarding, and shouldn’t lead to any better results than the easy way, at first. The advantage of trying the hard way is that it forces us to lose our illusions and leads us to a spiritual crisis, and that crisis becomes the secret of our success.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This is the section where the hero finds out who his or her real friends and enemies are.
  • The easiest way to drop a huge reversal on your hero is to reveal that all of his or her seeming success was actually all a part of the villain’s plan, but this is never a good idea.  This inevitably creates huge plot holes, and makes the hero seem way too stupid and predictable.  Instead, reversals should come about because of the hero’s blind spots and hubris.
  • It’s tempting to overmotivate the hero in this section.  Beware of the tendency to prop up a flagging story by tacking on an additional motivation, such as revealing that the villain also killed the hero’s family years ago.  If you want to strengthen your hero’s motivation, then simplify it instead of multiplying it.
Examples of Trying the Hard Way:
  • After pretending to be poor in the first half of Sullivan’s Travels, our hero finds out the hard reality.
  • Max in Rushmore learns to struggle through public school.
  • The prince in The King’s Speech finally agrees to talk about the troubled childhood that caused his stutter.
  • The heroes of Fatal Attraction and Silence of the Lambs each admit that they lied their way through the first half of the movie.
  • The heroes of Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, on the other hand, keep lying, but now they have to face the mounting consequences of those lies.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • If heroes don’t try the hard way, they get horribly depressed, as in Swingers and Bridesmaids.  This is hard to make interesting, but it can be done.
  • Avoid the urge to simply have a deus ex machina swoop in and bail out the heroes at this point, as in Superbad, where the cops show up and solve a lot of their problems.
Next: The Spiritual Crisis...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 9: The Midpoint Disaster

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • When Aristotle refers to “beginning, middle, end” or Syd Field refers to “Act 1, Act 2, Act 3”, they place too much emphasis on the two “act breaks” (the ¼ point and the ¾ point) but the midpoint is frequently the most stark dividing line in a story.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we will stick with the easy way, stay in our safe space, cling to sheltering relationships, and refuse to examine our own motives for as long as possible.  It takes a huge hubris-fueled failure, in which we lose that safe space, to force us to try the hard way, and consider the possibility we’re our own worst enemies.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Don’t go easy on your hero.  Worse is usually better.
  • Beware of the false midpoint disaster.  On “Mission: Impossible”, at the first act break, the whole mission would seem to fall apart, but when they returned from break it would turn out that “getting caught” was actually part of the plan.  But the network imposed a smart rule upon the writers: at the second act break (aka the midpoint) the plan had to genuinely fall apart, and the team had to improvise.  At this point your hero should throw away the map.
Examples of Midpoint Disasters:
  • Often the loss of safe space is literal: Max is expelled in Rushmore, Rick’s bar is trashed by the Nazis in Casablana, Bruce’s house is burnt down in Batman Begins, Tony’s house is blown up in Iron Man 3.
  • Sometimes it’s figurative: Sheriff Brody gets slapped in Jaws, Michael gets slapped in Tootsie.
  • Some movies prefer to pile on multiple midpoint disasters.  Bridesmaids has several huge disasters in a row, as the heroine loses her job, her apartment, her crush, her lover, her car, and her best friend.
  • Likewise, Raiders of the Lost Ark has two.  First Marion seems to die in the bazaar chase, then a few scenes later Indy gets some good news and some bad news: Marion’s still alive, but he’s lost the ark and been sealed into a tomb of snakes with her.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • In tragedies like American Beauty, we get the opposite: the midpoint peak, at which point the hero starts heading for a fall.
  • Even non-tragedies like How to Train Your Dragon can sometimes do something similar.  Hiccup gets everything he’s ever wanted at the midpoint, and it doesn’t fall apart until the ¾ point.
Next: The Hero Tries the Hard Way...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 8: The Promise of the Premise is Fulfilled

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This phrase was coined by guru Blake Snyder and it’s since become Hollywood gospel, and with good reason.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • This step is dictated less by human nature and more by the demands of the market. Nevertheless, we are more likely to tackle a huge challenge if we think we might have some fun doing it.  Of course, we only have fun when we’re doing it the easy way, and we’re not going to make real progress until we stop having fun and get to work.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • This section tends to provide the big trailer moments and the poster image.  This is where the hero does the thing we’ve come to see him or her do, and has fun doing it, right before the disaster hits and things get serious…
  • In this one area, there’s a huge difference between horror and almost every other genre.  Some gurus call this step “Fun and Games” and that’s true for every genre except horror, where our heroes have no fun at all in this section.  Nevertheless, the audience has fun, because we experience the creeping dread that sends a tingle up our spine.  In most genres, we totally identify with the hero’s ups and downs, but in horror, we identify only partially, because we also want to see the heroes punished for their sins.
  • You can’t be in too much of a hurry to get to the promise of the premise.  The Negotiator is about a hostage negotiator who gets framed for a crime and winds up taking hostages himself.  That’s a great premise, but they rush into it way too quickly: as soon as he gets framed, taking hostages is his first step, rather than a last resort, which is unbelievable and unsympathetic.  In this case, they should have taken their time, as in the exceptions listed below…
Examples of The Promise of the Premise:
  • Picture the posters: the couple and their baby sunbathe together in Raising Arizona, the lovers have steamy sex in Body Heat
  • Think of the trailer: the Falcon jumps into lightspeed in Star Wars, the therapist and the prince practice rapid nonsense sounds in The King’s Speech
  • It’s not just in horror movies, such as The Shining and Alien, that we’re having more fun than the heroes are, it’s also true of some especially tense thrillers: the big trailer moment in The Fugitive happens when he leaps into the artificial waterfall to save his life.  Presumably, that’s a lot for fun to watch that it is to do.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Some movies require more set-up than others, and that’s okay.  In Safety Last, it takes an extraordinary series of screw-ups to force our hero to do the unthinkable: climb the side of the building without a net.  The audience doesn’t mind: we appreciate that the hero exhausts all other option first, and we enjoy the mounting dread as we see his other option disappear.
  • Likewise, in disaster movies such as Unstoppable, it often takes the entire first half just to move the pieces into place.  In this case, our heroes don’t start chasing the train until more than halfway through.  The action-packed second half makes up for it. 
Next: The Midpoint Disaster...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 7: The Hero Tries to Solve the Problem the Easy Way

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This section is totally glossed over by most structure gurus, many of whom fail to differentiate the two halves of “Act Two”
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Even when we’ve accepted that we have to solve a large problem, and even after we’ve run into unexpected conflict, we are absolutely hard-wired to try the easy way first, and stick to it until it ends in disaster.
  • The easy way can take many different forms, but what they all have in common is an insistence on treating the problem as an external obstacle, rather than an internal dilemma.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Audiences quickly get bored with a story in which the hero has five tasks to complete, and then dutifully knocks them out one by one until arriving at the end of the story.  The hero should be trying and expecting to solve the whole problem in almost every scene.  The second quarter and third quarter should usually consist of two different attempts to solve the same problem, not two halves of one problem.
Examples of Trying the Easy Way:
  • Some heroes spend this section juggling different lies, assuming that the targets of their lies will never compare notes, such as in Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and How to Train Your Dragon.
  • Some heroes spend this time escaping from the danger, without realizing that they’ll eventually have to face it head on, such as in Witness, Die Hard, and Unstoppable.
  • Some use this time to unsuccessfully seek allies, such as in High Noon.
  • Others devote this time to overly-optimistic plotting, such as in Double Indemnity, The Producers and Body Heat.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • In rare cases, the easy way and hard way can occur in the opposite order.  In 28 Days Later, our heroes spend the 2nd quarter facing the zombies head on, and then spend the 3rd quarter in the false-security of the soldiers’ compound.
Next: The Midpoint Disaster...

Monday, June 10, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 6: Committing Creates Unexpected Conflict

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • The concept of the “inciting incident” often implies that the hero is fully aware of the scope of the problem before he or she commits, but that’s not the best choice, for various reasons…
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • As any filmmaker considering a second film will tell you, it’s much easier to commit to a big undertaking if you don’t know what you’re getting into.  Just because you know an opportunity is intimidating, doesn’t mean that you’ve comprehended what how much trouble you’ll be in once you dive in.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • You might assume that it would be more sympathetic to have a circumspect hero who sees all the angles of the situation ahead of time, but usually the opposite is true: audiences prefer heroes with a limited perspective.  Given how bad things are going to get, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who would put themselves and their loved ones into that much risk intentionally.
  • Almost always, the unexpected conflict should come from an actual person, as opposed to the weather, or a physical obstruction or a faceless bureaucracy.  Sheriff Brody isn’t opposed by “the town”, he’s opposed by the mayor.
  • This is a dangerous moment where the story can lose its momentum.  You’ve finally arranged all the pieces on the playing board, so it’s tempting to take it easy for a few pages, but you need to wallop the hero right away to keep the reader from putting down your manuscript.
Other Examples of Unexpected Conflict:
  • Jean Arthur finds that accepting a mink makes everyone assume she’s a mistress in Easy Living
  • The couple in The Awful Truth have just one problem with their divorce: who gets the dog?
  • The hero of Speed has accepted the danger of leaping on the bomb-rigged bus, but he doesn’t know that a wanted passenger will freak out and accidentally shoot the driver, instantly making the whole task a lot tougher.
  • This is also a great moment for the hero to realize that the villain is a lot smarter than anybody thought, such as in Goldfinger, The French Connection, and Silence of the Lambs
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a surprisingly conflict-free second quarter, becoming more of a smart, quiet, anthropological story.  It more than makes up for it in the apocalyptic second half.
Next: The Easy Way...

Sunday, June 09, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 5: The Hero Commits

Two in one day!
The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Again, this isn’t controversial. This is the moment the beginning ends and the middle begins. 
What Human Nature Says
  • “Eighty percent of success is showing up” –Woody Allen. 
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • It’s easy to over-emphasize the commitment scene.  It’s okay for heroes to be knee-deep before they realize that they’re committed.  Bruce Willis spends the entire first half of Die Hard just trying to call the cops, not realizing that he’s already pretty much committed himself to taking down the bad guys single-handedly.  
Other Examples of Commitment:
  • Sometimes, it’s possible skip over the actual commitment scene, jump-cutting right from hesitation to the conflict after committing: In Some Like It Hot, they’re mid-debate, when we suddenly cut to the two of them wobbling down the train platform in heels.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • None! This happens in every story about a large problem.
Next: Commitment Causes Unexpected Conflict...

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 4: Hesitation

We’ve got two short ones, so let’s do two in one day...Come back later for Part 5!
The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Nothing radical here.  This is a widely agreed-upon part of classic structure, going back to Joseph Campbell, who called it the “Refusal of the Call”
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • This is what distinguishes a big, life-changing problem from a small, no-brainer problem.  Hesitation proves that the opportunity is intimidating, indicating both high risk and high reward.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • It’s tempting to skip hesitation in order to speed up the first quarter and make the hero seem more forceful, but it’s equally important to cheer for and fear for the hero.  A healthy wariness reminds us to worry about the dangers and trust that the hero is not foolhardy.
Examples of Hesitation:
  • Hesitation scenes often establish the role of the hero’s friends, who either encourage or dismiss the hero’s doubts.  The friends in Salvador and Juno are dubious, but the more untrustworthy friends in Risky Business and Mean Girls say to go for it.  Or, as they say in the dubbed-for-TV version of the former: “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘What the hey!”
  • These scenes can also ease the audience into suspension of disbelief by giving the hero a moment to stop and say, “Hey, this is crazy, isn’t it??”  As seen in movies such as Back to the Future and The Terminator.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Another robot-like terminator is Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.  He seems to have no flaws whatsoever, and he doesn’t hesitate at all.  Strangely, we still love him, despite his inhuman resolve.  There’s simply no time for dithering: he has to change eleven minds in 100 minutes.  
Later Today: The Hero Commits...  

Thursday, June 06, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 3: The Intimidating Opportunity

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Most storytelling gurus miss the essential irony at the heart of most stories.  Although the audience may perceive the “inciting incident” as something negative that must be fixed or undone, to the hero, who is mired in a longstanding personal problem, the major event that launches the story presents itself as an opportunity.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Simply restoring the status quo is never a strong motivation.  In real life, even horrible crises are usually treated not as temporary accidents that must be undone, but as opportunities for fixing long-standing problems.  It may be a myth that the Chinese use the same character for crisis and opportunity, but that myth persists because it rings true.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • In order to build sympathy, the opportunity should be obviously intimidating.  This shouldn’t be a no-brainer decision…
  • …but in order to avoid losing empathy, the full size of the potential conflict should not be immediately apparent, as we’ll see in the next three steps.
Examples of Intimidating Opportunities:
  • Many intimidating opportunities, such as the shark in Jaws and the runaway train in Unstoppable are disasters for everyone except the heroes, each of whom needs a chance to prove his continued usefulness.
  • A classic positive intimidating opportunity can be found in Superbad: on the one hand, they get to go to a real party and become heroes to their crushes by providing the beer…but on the other hand, it’s illegal and they’ve never tried it before.  It’s clearly intimidating, but they don’t yet know how bad it’ll be, because they don’t imagine that they’ll get mugged immediately.
  • Some intimidating opportunities exist only in the hero’s mixed-up mind: Kevin Spacey’s volatile chemistry gets unexpectedly set off by the sight of his daughter’s cheerleader friend in American Beauty, in both positive and tragic ways.
  • Sometimes it’s intimidating only because of the hero’s flaw, as with Andy’s trepidation in The 40 Year Old Virgin when his co-workers offer to get him laid.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Most movies follow the pattern of “Plot Motivates, Character Complicates”, with the first half driven by external forces, and the second half complicated by volatile character reactions.  However, even though they’re harder to write, there are also “Character Motivates, Plot Complicates” movies.  In these movies, the hero puts the plot into motion willfully, then comes to regret it in the second half when things get complicated.  These include Sullivan’s Travels and Silver Linings Playbook.
  • Sometimes, if the hero is particularly misguided, he may seize on an opportunity that in no way solves his problem.  Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore is explicitly told that he might be kicked out of school, which make him discontent, but for some reason he thinks that he can solve this discontent by pursuing a friendship with a school donor and a romance with a teacher.  In fact, of course, neither of these will keep him from getting kicked out, and both actually hasten his expulsion.
Next: Hesitation...

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 2: The Public Humiliation

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Again, the public humiliation often gets lost in the concept of the “inciting incident,” but this is a crucial step, because it’s the moment that the hero’s longstanding personal problem finally becomes clear to the hero, and, most importantly, to the audience.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we may be aware we have a problem, and feel troubled about it, but we are unlikely to confront it until that problem has been exposed to the world in a humiliating way.
  • The hero may have been only dimly aware of the problem before hand, but the social humiliation makes the problem acute.  Now that it has been made visible and exposed to the world, it cannot be ignored any longer.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Humiliation scenes are tricky.  One the one hand, they should illuminate a real personal problem, but in order to create more sympathy, the size of the humiliation should exceed the size of the problem.  The best humiliation scenes are ones that are somewhat –but not entirely– unjust.
  • Iron Man 2 has an example of an unsympathetic humiliation.  A U.S. Senator is upset that a cocky millionaire arms dealer has his own personal weapon of mass destruction.  We’re supposed to boo the Senator, but why would we?  The Senator may be a jerk, but he’s totally correct.  Compare this to the first Iron Man: We have the same cocky arms dealer, but this time he becomes a prisoner of Afghani warlords, which is even worse than he deserves, so we have no trouble sympathizing with his plight, even though it’s something he brought down on himself.
Other Examples of Public Humiliations:
  • In The Awful Truth, the couple have been cheating on each other for some time, but it’s only when both are exposed while they have a house full of guests that they decide that it’s time to divorce.
  • In Witness, Harrison Ford hides a young Amish murder witness and his beautiful mother (Kelly McGillis) at his sister’s apartment.  The next day, after McGillis gets annoyed at Ford’s boorishness, she cheerfully conveys to him what his sister really thinks of him, laying out a litany of his personal flaws.  Coming from a witness, this embarrasses him both personally and professionally.
  • In Donnie Brasco, both the feds and the mafia tells Donnie that his mustache violates their regulations, drawing the first of many ironic parallels between the two institutions.  After he dutifully shaves it off, his wife laments that the mustache was the only thing she liked about his new identity: Clearly he’s being pulled in every possible direction.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • As with Step 1, the early James Bond movies make for a big exception.  Once they added Judy Dench as a far more withering version of “M”, things because to change.
  • In rare cases, the public humiliation happens offscreen before the movie begins, such as in The Shining.  Before the story begins, he has come home drunk, dislocated his son’s arm and been accused of abuse. 
Next: The Intimidating Opportunity...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 1: The Longstanding Personal Problem

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • The conventional wisdom says that the hero starts out content until the status quo is upset by an inciting incident. The hero overcomes the disruption and returns to the happy status quo at the end of the story.
  • But this doesn’t actually describe what happens in most stories, and it certainly doesn’t match human nature…
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we let a mess of troubles mount up long before we act. In fact, we only take on the massive work of solving a large problem once we have been discontent for some time.
  • One of our troubles, of course, is that we have internal flaws (which are usually the flip-side of our greatest strengths.) But when we set out to solve the problem that flaw is usually invisible to us. Most heroes do not set out to confront or fix their internal flaws. Only later do we realize that we cannot fix our problem without confronting our flaws.
  • But we are aware, right from the beginning, of a longstanding personal problem. This is usually something social in nature: we are broke, disrespected, emasculated, lonely, etc. 
  • So rather than start with a happy status quo that gets ruined by the “inciting incident”, most stories begin in the opposite way: the hero starts out with a longstanding personal problem and the “inciting incident” (even if it’s something horrible) presents itself as an opportunity to solve that problem, as we’ll see in the next two steps. 
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • If you want your heroes to be relatable, these problems should invoke empathy. Almost all of us think of ourselves as disrespected, for instance, but hardly any of us think of ourselves as racist. Unlike the flaw, which can be more unique, the problem should relatively universal.
Examples of Personal Problems
  • In Kramer Vs. Kramer, it’s tempting to say that Dustin Hoffman’s problem is that his wife has abandoned him and their son, but that’s not a longstanding problem that pre-dates the story, so it doesn’t fit into this category. Alternately, one might be tempted to say that his problem is that he’s not a good father, but that’s not something he’s aware of yet (it’s his flaw, not his problem). If we limit ourselves to longstanding issues that he’s already aware of, we see his real problem: he’s distracted. His work takes him away from his family, and he can’t decide which is more important. As horrible as it is, the disappearance of his wife will give him just the opportunity he needs to address this problem.
  • In Swingers, Jon Favreau’s problem is that his ex-girlfriend won’t call him back. Even though the audience can see right away that he’s better off moving on, we can also see that, for the time being, he’s defining his problem entirely externally. In this case, we, like his friends, empathize with his pain, but have little sympathy for his suffering, because he clearly needs to move on.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • James Bond in Goldfinger certainly has flaws (he’s callous and careless with other people’s lives: he recruits a girl to help him, accidentally gets her killed, then recruits her sister, and gets her killed too, and he doesn’t seem to care either time), but he doesn’t care about those flaws and he’s genuinely untroubled when the movie begins. Indeed it begins quite famously as strips off a frog suit to reveal a tux, then casually lights up a cigarette as his explosives go off behind him. Even that harrowing mission leaves him supremely untroubled. This formula worked for forty years, but, in his recent movies, Bond has bowed to the times and starts off each movie feeling troubled. 
Tomorrow: The Public Humiliation...

Monday, June 03, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem: 14 Steps x 56 Movies = 784 Examples

Have you noticed that this series has already been going for weeks and we’ve never gotten to “Step 1”?  Well, don’t worry, Step 1 is finally ready…for tomorrow.  First, allow me to preview the fourteen steps and finally share with you the rather massive chart that I’ll be working from (broken up into two halves for easy reading) where I list out all fourteen steps for all 56 examples.  If it helps you to review all the data at once, go ahead, but otherwise, you don’t have to dive in, because tomorrow we begin going through the steps one by one.

(And for what it’s worth, I’m in no way implying that these are the 56 best movies out there–in fact, there are some on the list that I’m not that crazy for.  I was just looking for a representative sample of movies that were about the solving a large problem, and were, for the most part, well-liked, well-written, and financially successful.)

The Steps:

Step 1: The Longstanding Personal Problem
Step 2: The Public Humiliation
Step 3: The Intimidating Opportunity
Step 4: Hesitation
Step 5: The Hero Commits
Step 6: Committing Creates Unexpected Conflict
Step 7: The Hero Tries to Solve the Problem the Easy Way
Step 8: The Promise of the Premise is Fulfilled
Step 9: The Midpoint Disaster
Step 10: The Hero Tries the Hard Way
Step 11: The Spiritual Crisis
Step 12: Proactive Pursuit of The True Goal
Step 13: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up
Step 14: Climax and Epilogue

And Here Are the Charts:  


Tomorrow: Step 1!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

How to Structure a Story Around a Large Problem: What's the Difference Between Problems, Flaws, and Goals?

Surely someone in statistics has already discovered this phenomenon and named it, but just in case they haven’t, I will now propose Bird’s Law: Any sufficiently large data set will begin to self-replicate.  Which is to say: once you reach a critical mass of data, the data themselves begins to generate more and more results simply by interacting with each other.

This is the problem I had last week.  I decided that, in order to finally write systematically and definitively about structure, I had to do something I’d always resisted...  As I’m sure you noticed, I tend to postulate a rule and then cherry pick examples that prove my point while ignoring every movie that doesn’t. But this time, I wanted to figure out what percentage of well-regarded movies conformed to each step of my proposed structure, which means that I need a fixed, large data set.

For the most part, I generated that set unintentionally the week before when I progressed through seven genres and listed examples from each.  For this next project, I decided to simply use the resulting genre-by-genre movie list, after I excluded some movies that seemed like outliers, and added some others that I consider exemplary or their form.

But a funny thing happened.  As my chart grew more and more massive, it began to single out and expose various shortcuts I’d taken over the years.  For instance, here’s a question that I always fudged: what’s the difference between the hero’s “problem”, “flaw”, “false goal”, and “true goal”?  Are they always necessarily four different things, or do pairs of them overlap?

It quickly became obvious that I had always been vague about this, because I didn’t really know the answer myself.  Luckily my new data-set made many things clear.  Here’s what I discovered:
  • The personal problem and the flaw are usually very different things.
  • The personal problem is something that the hero is already aware of, (or finally becomes aware quickly of as a result of the social humiliation.)  After all, the personal problem is what directly spurs the hero to pursue the opportunity, so it has to already be on the surface.
  • The flaw, on the other hand, is usually something hidden that the hero can’t see yet.  Only by going on this false quest (“knows what he wants but not what he needs”), does the hero get to know himself (or herself) and discover the underlying flaw.
  • The problem should usually be phrased non-judgmentally (“Disrespected”, “over-worked”, etc.).  Most of us define our problems externally, not internally, until we’re forced to become self-critical.
  • On the other hand, the flaw should always be internal and always be phrased negatively (“sanctimonious”, “disloyal”, etc.).  In other words, it should be a true flaw.  When someone asks us about our own flaws, we prefer to say, “I’m too nice” or “too much of a perfectionist,” etc. because those aren’t true flaws and we don’t want to change.  A hero must have a true flaw that must require change.  If you’re writing a movie like Easy Living, for instance, it’s tempting to say that the heroine’s flaw is that she’s “too nice”, which isn’t really a flaw, but it’s better to say “too na├»ve and deferential”, which is a true flaw that must be changed.  Otherwise you’ll go too easy on your characters.
And so, in most cases, the hero is pursuing a surface problem without realizing that it masks a deeper flaw.  Unexpectedly, he or she will have to face that deeper flaw in order to solve the surface problem.

…But here’s a surprisingly common exception:
  • There are instances in which the hero has already correctly identified his or her deeper flaw, and knows that this flaw is a big problem.  For these heroes, the flaw and the problem are the same, and the hero is already on the right track. (For instance, the heroes of The Apartment, Raising Arizona, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, Rear Window, The French Connection, Speed, Iron Man, and Casablanca)  So when these heroes reach their spiritual crisis, they don’t say “Oh!  So that’s what my real problem is!”  They already know it from the start.
  • Nevertheless, at the beginning, they’re still stuck in a downward spiral and they don’t know how to fix their flaw/problem. They pursue the opportunity for the right reasons, but they choose the wrong opportunity or go about it in the wrong way. Only as they enter the last quarter of the movie do they finally figure out how to fix their flaw.
Here are some other variations:
  • Sometimes, the hero is trying to solve a totally non-existent problem, and the fact that he imagines this “problem” is his flaw.  (Sullivan’s Travels)
  • Sometimes the hero’s flaw is that he pursues an opportunity that will in no way solve his problem (Rushmore)
So where does that leave the false goal and the true goal? And hey, wait a second, what about the dramatic question??  Where does that fit in?? Well, sometimes these things overlap and sometimes… Okay, let’s just share the first of this week’s big-ass charts.  This may clear all these questions up, or it may leave you helplessly confused.  Feel free to follow up in the comments, then we’ll move on to the next step… (Needless to say, click to enlarge...)
Agree? Disagree? Questions? Comments?