James Hull Articles: Archive VI
For additional past articles for Screenplay.com by James Hull, click here.
Narrative Drive and Weak Protagonists
Protagonists are responsible for driving a story forward towards its ultimate goal. If there is some confusion over who they are, or the goal itself is unclear, an audience's interest in the events that unfold on screen will quickly fade.
Whenever a story feels weak, or seems to meander with no real sense of purpose, nine times out of ten there is confusion over who the Protagonist is and what the Story Goal is. By definition, the Protagonist pursues the Story Goal. Now this could be the same character we experience the story through (and most often is), but as explained in my article on Redefining Protagonist and Main Character, this is not always the case.
So why differentiate between the two?
Because when you're trying to figure out what is wrong with your story, you need to be absolutely clear about what piece you are actually looking at. There has been much confusion over the years between these two concepts, confusion that, unfortunately, has led authors to rewrite something that was possibly already working. When a story feels flat or slow somewhere during the 2nd act, an unknowing author may try to force their Main Character into doing something that is out of character or incompatible with the rest of the story.
Imagine if Red in The Shawshank Redemption had started actively working towards Andy's freedom because King was worried that the "driving force" of the story was waning. Or what if Rick in Casablanca had tried to get the letters of transit into Laszlo's hands before he gave that classic nod to his band. Horrid thought, right?
But this is precisely the kind of thing that happens when someone doesn't truly understand how a complete story is structured.
The moment the Inciting Incident occurs, balance in the story's world is upset. Before the end of the first act, the Protagonist will spring into action and work to restore balance to the world by solving the story's major problem. That effort is a pursuit towards the Story Goal.
So how can you determine if the Main Character is the Protagonist?
Identifying the Story Goal
Before you can figure out who is pursuing the goal, it helps to know what that goal actually is. While every character in a story might have his or her own personal goal, the Story Goal is the thing that everyone in the story is concerned with. There should always be some universal problem that affects everyone as this not only ties everyone together, but also insures that the author's message is clear and definite. If your story doesn't have this Story Goal, it might help to step further back and learn about Writing Complete Stories.
In The Terminator, problems exist because a naked killing machine has been sent back in time to murder Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton). Stopping him before he can do this is the Goal of the story. This goal begins the moment when he arrives in that electric blue ball — the natural balance of things is upset and the Goal seeks to right that.
The person leading the charge towards that goal is Reese (Michael Biehn). Reese, therefore, is the Protagonist of the story because he is the one pursuing the completion of the Story Goal. Sarah is our way into the story, and thus is the Main Character. She can't be considered the one moving towards the goal because she doesn't do much of anything. Eventually, she gets to the point where she has to take over for Reese, but not until very late into the story.
The Protagonist needs to be pursuing the Goal of a story throughout every act, even throughout the first. When they don't, you end up with stores that have little to no narrative drive.
Stories That Meander
In Zombieland, problems exist because zombies have overrun the world. Getting somewhere safe is the goal of the story, and for some reason, an amusement park near Los Angeles is considered a safe zone. It's like The Road, just without all that ash!
The ones leading that charge are the girls, Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The Main Character, Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), isn't driven towards the safety of the amusement park as much as he is to basically survive. Sure, he wants to find his parents, but in the overall scheme of things and the road trip to L.A., he seems more like a passenger than the one doing all the driving. He has his own control issues to deal with and overcoming those would be his personal goal, but as far as all the other characters are concerned reaching the safety of the park is everything.
The problem with the story, though, is that the girls are really weak Protagonists. This is why, when they reach a certain celebrity's house near the end of the 2nd act, everything in the story comes to a grinding halt. With no one actively pursuing to resolve the story's major problem, the audience has no idea where the story is headed or when it is ever going to end. It takes them out of the experience.
That moment with said celebrity is fun, but it slows the story down. If at least one of them had kept trying to leave, or kept reminding everyone of what they were really after, dramatic tension would have remained at a higher level and the story would have been stronger.
Stories That Live
Narrative drive exists when there is an effort being made to restore balance to the world of the story. This is the Goal of the story that everyone is concerned with. If the Goal is unclear or there is confusion over who is the one leading the charge towards it, this drive is weakened and the story suffers for it. A clearly defined Protagonist, in pursuit of a Story's Goal from the first act through the last, is one of the keys towards writing a compelling story.
Four Acts, Not Three Points
From Aristotle to McKee, stories have always been seen as having three movements, or Acts. How can there be anything more to a story than the Beginning, the Middle, and the End?
For the longest time, writers everywhere have struggled with the elusive traditional Second Act. They often know how they want to start things out, and they've usually got a great idea for a killer ending, but when it comes to all that stuff in the Middle, they can find themselves feeling a bit lost or confused. How do they keep the energy level up for such an extended period of time?
Syd Field made things easier with his recognition of the Midpoint, an event that happens directly in the middle of a screenplay. This discovery effectively divided the traditional Second Act into two parts and gave writers welcome relief from narrative exasperation. Blake Snyder reiterated as much in his Save the Cat! series, as did many other experts in story.
With the previously insurmountable traditional Second Act divided into two manageable chunks, writers everywhere rejoiced. They finally had a way of trudging through that first draft. But what most failed to see was that their new found ease of movement came more as a result of aligning their writing process with the natural structure of a complete story rather than simply breaking a larger piece into manageable chunks.
Rather, writing from the perspective of four movements is closer to what really goes on in the human mind when it attempts to solve a problem. If stories are about solving problems, it only follows that the words will flow effortlessly when brought into line with the natural process of problem-solving.
Further explanation requires a journey to murkier and deadlier depths.
A Simple Story Told Well
For millions of avid fans, the first week in August reignites the primal fears of being eaten alive by a remorseless killing machine known as the Great White shark. At the StoryFanatic household, this week long study of deadly dorsal fins and serrated teeth—known affectionately elsewhere as "Shark Week"—culminates with a screening of Steven Spielberg's 1975 classic, Jaws. What a better way to celebrate terror than with a film that is arguably the Summer's first-ever blockbuster hit.
But does it rate story-wise?
While the film is expertly told, it does lack the thematic complexity of say, Hamlet or Amadeus. The shark certainly forces Brody to deal with his personal issues, but is hardly the kind of character the Sheriff can develop a meaningful relationship with, one he can battle on a subjective level. Thus, no real emotional argument is made and the film comes up just short of claiming the label of a complete story.
That being said, the purpose of Jaws was to entertain and excite and almost certainly, terrify. For that it was extremely successful (at least in the mid-70s), and whether or not it was told completely pales in comparison to its undeniable success. When all is said and done, Jaws tells the simple story of a man who overcomes his fear of water by having to deal with a shark. There really isn't much more to it than that.
What it does provide, however, is an excellent example of how the problem-solving process moves through four separate Acts.
Picking up on last week's article regarding Plot Points and the Inciting Incident, it is easy to see the partitions separating each Act. The Inciting Incident of Jaws comes with the brutal devouring of "Chrissie" Watkins. That first attack upsets the balance of things in Amityville, thus creating the need for a story. Destroying the shark resolves the problem and ends the story. The three Plot Points between these events amplify the original problem, increasing the inequity caused by the Inciting Incident while simultaneously shifting the focus of the story.
What is most interesting about this is not so much how the Plot Points divide the story up equally, as it is about how these events shift the dramatic focus of the film and the intentions of the characters into a new and as of yet, uncharted area. The Plot Points are more than simple markers to keep the script reader interested. They are a changing of the tide and a call for new growth.
Development of Character
As mentioned previously, Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) has a personal issue with going into the water—he's terrified of it. He spends a good portion of the story avoiding this fear, doing whatever he can to keep from facing it regardless of the problems it creates for him and those around him. The story, and the Plot Points that propel it forward, move Brody to a point where he can finally overcome that fear by having to face them head-on.
Driven by this fear, Brody takes several approaches to dealing with this problem externally. His approach changes with each Act Turn, as it should in response to the shifting dramatic tides going on within the story.
It should be noted that the following four stages of approach are NOT in every story, nor do they necessarily reflect accurately what Brody is dealing with personally. The four listed below are merely the different approaches one can take when determining how to deal with a man-eating shark. It is one way to look at the problem-solving process, however one complete way. The following sequence is simply provided as an example of the natural progression that comes when a writer begins to think in terms of four, rather than three.
Following the awful demise of Chrissie, Brody is forced into protection mode. In this First Act, he endeavors to safeguard the people of Amity from any further attacks. A character stuck in preservation mode won't do anything more or less than what it would take to put things back the way they were, almost as if nothing had happened at all. This is reflected in his efforts to make warning signs and his desire to close the beaches.
Only problem is, Amity has a Mayor and several city fathers who would rather see their town thrive as it always has on the 4th of July.
Having failed to resolve the problem with protection, Brody tries doing nothing in the Second Act. Sure, he argues with the Mayor at the council meeting and at the dock with the captured tiger shark, but when it comes down to it, he spends most of this Act remaining relatively ineffectual. The Kitner kid gets it and Brody responds by getting drunk on wine.
This approach of inaction carries itself up to the apparent third "shark" attack, wherein Brody stands shoreline as dozens and dozens of panicked swimmers rush past him. He can't step into the water, can't help anyone and even when the real shark threatens his own son, all he can do is stand by and watch. He does nothing to further or hinder the progress of the problem.
The severed leg of the poor fisherman falls to the ocean floor and Brody has to change his approach yet again. No longer able to hide behind the guise of protecting, and no longer content with standing idly by at the water's edge, Brody spends the majority of the Third Act reacting. This is different from preservation in that, when something negative happens, the reactive person attacks the source of the problems rather than try to bring things back to an equitable state regardless of source.
When Quint destroys the radio, Brody responds by yelling at him, challenging him to the point of being over-reactive. If this had been the Brody of the First Act, he would have tried putting the radio back together. If instead this had been the Brody of the previous act, he wouldn't have done a thing. But he didn't because this is the Brody of the Third Act; there is no going back to previous Acts when it comes to character development and plot progression. The human mind doesn't backtrack when solving problems, and neither should a story.
Brody moves into this Third Act focused on responding to the shark as his new approach. The reactive person attacks the source of the problem that attacks them, reacting to what has happened. There is no looking forward, and no anticipation.
The shark attacks the boat, chomps down on Quint, and suddenly Brody finds himself propelled into his Fourth and Final Act. Having tried every other approach one can when dealing with a killer shark, Brody is left with one final method: Proaction. This is different from Reaction in that a character won't wait for something negative to happen first, instead they initiate the action. Sheriff Brody doesn't wait for the shark to attack first, as Hooper did in the cage, or as Quint did trying to punch his way free of those massive teeth.
Instead, the man who was once afraid of water, grabs the gun, climbs the masthead and tells G.W. to flash those pearly whites.
The Completeness of Four Movements
It is a natural progression, when trying to determine how to effectively deal with a menacing shark, to move from a point of preservation to inaction to reaction, and finally, to proaction. Whether or not Brody's final shot rang true or not, every tactical aspect of fighting a monster of the sea had been covered. A completely new story would have to be created to further deal with the problem if the menace had somehow survived. There was nowhere else Brody could have gone.
Eagle-eyed storytellers will pick up on the fact that the Act movements in Brody's development do not correspond exactly with their counterparts in the story at large. His first Act lingers until the Kitner kid's mom delivers her response and his Third Act lasts forever until Quint meets his bloody end. This is not a mistake.
The development of the Main Character does not always sync up precisely with the major Act turns of a story, nor should it. Storytelling is not an exact science; not every progression can be broken down into four 30-minute sections. Sheriff Brody's development in Jaws is an excellent example of this.
It is interesting to note that in Alexandra Sokoloff's analysis of Jaws (one of the better screenwriting experts out there), Brody's slap is identified as the First Act Turning Point. There is a difference between the Plot Points that affect everyone and the Plot Points that affect the Main Character personally. His feels more dramatic and more important because one, as an audience we empathize more strongly with his storyline, and two, the dramatic shift between his First Act and Second is more significant and drastic than the shift that happens in the larger story.
Regardless of whether or not one sees the separation between the Main Character's storyline and larger storyline at work (usually called the A-story), Brody's development does proceed in a natural progression of four stages, each one building upon the failures and successes of the previous.
There is a feeling of satisfaction, of contentment, that comes with a story that has covered all the dramatic bases. There are no unanswered questions, no story "holes" for audiences to poke their fingers into, and no lingering feeling of dissatisfaction. While Jaws is not a literary masterpiece, it does satisfy the audience's need to have every avenue explored in the context of defeating a killer shark.
If Brody had somehow skipped the approach of inaction, as might have happened when thinking of the traditional story paradigm of three acts, there would have been some doubt left in the audience's mind as to Brody's growth and the sincerity of his actions. What if he hadn't done anything?, they would have asked, and the film would have felt less than satisfying.
As it so happens, every approach was covered and the film was a massive success. The progression of Four Acts has much to do with that.
Delivering the Message
Plot points and the Acts they form are not devices designed to organize storytelling into 30-page increments. Instead, they help form the carrier wave for the message a writer hopes to impart on their audience. Thinking in terms of four Acts, rather than three, insures that the entire message will be delivered intact.
The problem with thinking of "the first half of Second Act" and "the second half of the Second Act" is that a writer is in essence saying both halves are dealing with the same thematic elements, both are parts of the same whole, when the truth is they're not. They are separate, dramatic movements that should be treated as much.
All Acts are created equal in the eyes of a sophisticated writer.
Consistent Plot Points
In a story, the major plot points are either driven by decisions or actions. While a story may naturally ebb and flow between both, when all is said and done, one of these will be seen as the primary driving plot force in a story. This is because meaningful stories are really just an argument and effective arguments have a pattern they must adhere to.
An author picks either an action or a decision to set the wheels of inequity into motion. In doing so, the argument of the story is begun. Choosing whether an action leads to a decision or a decision leads to an action is essentially telling an audience "This sort of thing leads to that." This pattern is now set up as the pattern of logic that will be examined in the Objective Story. An author then concludes her argument with the meaningful bookend, "No. Actually, this sort of thing leads to that."
Meaningful stories are really just an argument
This is a simplified look at the mechanics in a story, but is essential towards understanding why the story driver must stay consistent.
If the major plots are different or are changed halfway through a film, the integrity of a story falls apart. The author ends up making an argument that sounds something like this: "This sort of thing leads to that. Well…no. Actually, that sort of thing leads to this."
The author who does this has, in essence, begun a completely new argument. The context has been spun around on an unsuspecting audience.
We, as an audience, were originally examining the logical effects of decisions leading to actions, or actions leading to decisions. This was the pattern that was being appraised. If we were looking at why certain decisions lead to problematic actions, we'd like to know what kinds of decisions would lead us away from those problems (or towards more if the overall story ended in failure). Likewise with actions leading to problematic decisions.
The fantastic thing about knowing the plot driver of your story is that you never again have to suffer from that awful question, "What happens next?" An action-driven story requires an action to spin the story in a different direction. A decision will do nothing to further the story. The same with decision-driven stories. In order for a decision-driven story to progress the story requires a decision to be made. Trying to force an act-turn with an action simply won't work.
Star Wars was driven by actions (Death Star created, Death Star destroyed), while The Godfather was driven by decisions (Don Corleone decides not to support the drug running, Michael decides to become the new Godfather). Toy Story was driven by actions (Buzz arrives in Andy's room, Buzz and Woody "land" in Andy's car), while Searching for Bobby Fisher was driven by decisions (Josh decides to hold on to the chess piece instead of the baseball, Josh decides to offer a draw to Jonathan).
Countless other great films stay consistent in the type of plot point that drives their story forward. At the very least, the two most important plot points - the Inciting Incident and the Concluding Event - need to be either both based on actions, or based on decisions.
"Genius Doesn't Know Genius"
For almost two decades, the artists at Pixar Animation Studios have delighted audiences everywhere with captivating and compelling stories. Creatives everywhere have long respected the studio's ability to fuse heart and soul into enduring classics of narrative. How is it then that Pixar apparently has no idea how they do what they do?
Last summer, Pixar story artist Emma Coats tweeted a list of 22 story "rules" she learned while working there. Retweeted and passed around ad-nauseam, many took to the list in the hopes of discovering the secrets to the studio's long time success. Unfortunately, what they found were mostly superficial tips to help writers during the process of writing—not necessarily the reason why Pixar's film excel over all others.
To be fair, these rules were originally presented as "tweets" and thus were constricted by the 140 character limit. Nothing much of value can be presented in such a short space. Still, many continue to uphold this list as great insight into the construction of a Pixar-like story.
The real secret, it turns out, can be found elsewhere.
The Not-So Helpful
First up, the bad:
Rule 3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
Another call to simply trust the process—woefully turning a blind eye to meaningless writing in the hopes that it will all somehow "magically" work out. Creative writing certainly requires a fair amount of exploration, but the sooner you know what it is you want to say the sooner you can actually go about writing what it is you want to say. The danger, of course, lies in beginning production before that theme—or purpose—has made itself known. Cramming it in last minute requires multiple re-dos and countless hours of overtime.
Rule 4: Once upon a time there was ____. Every day, ____. One day ____. Because of that, ____. Because of that, ____. Until finally ____.
A formula for writing a tale? No thanks. If one wanted to put out a statement (which is all a tale really is) then one could use Twitter or a Facebook update. Stories argue, tales state. Unfortunately the tip above usually leads to the latter.
The balance of the less-than-helpful tips lie somewhere between simple writing advice and the kind of feel-good hand-holding typical of a weekend writer's retreat in Sedona. "You have to know yourself", "You gotta identify with your situation/characters", and "Let go even if it's not perfect" do not really reveal the reason why so many of Pixar films remain beloved in the hearts of millions let alone how to construct one of your own. When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next" and Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind work as great brainstorming techniques but they don't expose any meaningful secret approach. If it is really true that "those who can't do, teach" then the corollary to that must be "those who can, can't teach."
Extracting the Gems
That said, some of these rules provide useful concrete information that many can actually use to structure a meaningful story worthy of the Pixar name. Some of these actually explain why their films work so well. The first that stands out:
Rule 16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
Dramatica (Narrative Science theory) refers to these stakes as the Story Consequences. Most writers understand the concept of Goals and how they motivate characters to take action, but relatively few understand the importance of providing their characters consequences should they fail. Both exist in a story and both require each other for meaning. In Toy Story, failure to keep up with the move condemns the toys to a life of perpetual panic. Consequences work as a motivator to help propel a story forward—a solid tip that gives a foundation for good strong narrative.
Rule 6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Very helpful. If one wishes to write a story about the first African-American baseball player and all the issues of preconception that run along with such a predicament, throwing his "polar opposite" against him would help increase the conflict and give him reason to grow. But what would that opposite be? Someone who doesn't believe he should be playing ball because of the color of his skin? That would challenge him, but it wouldn't really challenge his own personal point-of-view as he would have been dealing with that his entire life already. Better to throw someone in there who shares a similar predicament but goes about solving it in a different and "opposite" way.
Thankfully the current model of Dramatica provides us with clues where to find this similar, yet different character through its concept of Dynamic Pairs. Pursuit and Avoid, Faith and Disbelief, Perception and Actuality all work as dynamic opposites to each other—put the two Dynamic Pairs in the same room and watch the sparks fly.
In the case of our famed baseball player we would want to construct an Influence Character that was deep in denial. Perhaps an aged coach well beyond his years, obsessed with bringing a losing team to the World Series. Or maybe the baseball player's wife who, regardless of all the talk of extra-martial affairs and excessive drinking on the part of her husband, stands by his side through thick and thin. Either way, this dynamically "opposite" character would force the baseball player to examine his own issues of prejudice and preconception and whether or not he was living in denial.
So yes, challenging characters to deal with their issues by providing "polar opposites" certainly helps in the construction of a story. Again, concrete, solid advice that can help one write a powerful story of their own.
Rule 7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
Another good one, even if it seemingly runs counter to tip #3 above. Should writers go with the flow or are they supposed to know where they're going? A meaningful ending bases itself on the thematic arguments that preceded them. They work together to help define the Author's argument. Which brings us to…
Rule 14: Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
The argument an Author makes runs tantamount to all. The "belief burning within you" lies in the Author's point-of-view on how to solve a particular problem. Narrative Science helps to give those beliefs a reference point and offers suggestions for formatting a strong and coherent argument to support that belief.
While fun to retweet and pass along, the majority of these 22 rules of Pixar storytelling do little to explain the rampant success of that studio during their first decade. If it is true that these were gleaned from "senior colleagues" then it is quite possible that those responsible for such great storytelling have no idea how they were really able to get there in the first place.
The real secret to Pixar's undeniable success lies in their ability to write complete stories. Whether it be the dynamic clash between Woody and Buzz in the first Toy Story or the thematic interplay between Linguini and Remy in Ratatouille, each and every story effectively argued a specific approach to solving a problem. Managing to incorporate all four throughlines necessary to convey this message over a decade of production astounds those who managed to only do so maybe once every ten years. Pick any film and one can easily identify the Overall Story Throughline, the Main Character Throughline, the Influence Character Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline. Other studios and other films can usually only claim to be able to do the first two (though some even struggle with that). Finding Nemo went so far as to weave a second smaller, yet no less important, sub-story into the final product. A truly remarkable accomplishment that bears full witness.
The reason for the apparent drop-off in love for their most recent films? A departure from these principles of solid story structure. Both Brave and Cars 2 fail to weave convincing arguments, the former going so far as to have both principal characters flip their point-of-views—a tragedy leaving many wondering what the film was even trying to say (beyond how cool Merida's hair looked).
For the genius to continue and for those interested in repeating that success, an understanding of how narrative works to argue an approach to problem-solving becomes necessary. Narrative Science theory, and Dramatica in particular, provides that insight. It provides the secret "keys" everyone hoped to find when they first stumble across these 22 rules of storytelling. Understanding why so many of their films appeal to both the hearts and minds of countless millions can go a long way towards insuring the same kind of love and acceptance in one's own work.
"Story Goals and Why They Exist"
A storytelling cliché pops up from time to time, an easy get that reeks of desperation from low screening numbers: Characters who actually state their goals out loud. Why must we suffer through this ridiculous conceit?
It's not like this happens in normal day-to-day conversation. We don't travel to work and state Today I'm going to finish that report! If we do, we should be locked up. And so should the characters of stories who react in kind.
Great stories work a goal without the fear of an audience not getting it because they didn't hear it. Great stories work that understanding through sound story structure.
Great stories, like Back to the Future.
The Structure of Time Travel
But wait a second…Doc distinctly tells Marty, "We've got to send you back to the future!" Doesn't that qualify as another vapid response to unclear structure?
The completion of a goal finishes a story. Marty successfully returns to 1985, yet unfinished business still lurks in the wings. The Libyans continue to roam the Twin Pines mall. Getting back to the future, it turns out, solves nothing.
Time Shifts and Story Structure
Many stories play around with the temporal shifting of events. Could it be that the shifts in time simply don't factor into the structure of the story?
Paraphrasing Dramatica co-creator Chris Huntley (from the [March 2005 Dramatica Tip of the Month]): if the characters in a story are aware of the time shifts (as in Somewhere In Time or Back to the Future) then that awareness becomes a part of the structure. If they're not (as with Memento or Pulp Fiction), then the time shifts are simply a storytelling device, and have little to do with the actual structure of the piece.
In this case, time shifts matter.
Tying Causation to a Story's Goal
When appreciating the Goal of a story, accurate analysts nail down the individual events that turn a story from one dramatic tide to the next. The initial cause shines as the most important of all these. When identified with absolute certitude, the event that is needed to resolve a story's issues reveals itself. Widely known as the Inciting Incident, this first marker drives a story into existence.
Separating Inciting Incident from Main Character
Many people erroneously see the First Act Turn as the Inciting Incident. Whenever someone states that a story didn't start for the first twenty or thirty minutes, they more often than not completely missed how the story actually began. That 20-30 minute marker almost always becomes responsible for turning the First Structural Act into the Second. It is rarely the Inciting Incident.
These errors in judgment owe their life to the preconception that the central character, or Main Character, is also the Protagonist. The Protagonist of a story—the one responsible for pursuing the successful resolution of the story's inequity—latches on to the Act Turns as a powerful symbiotic, part and parcel of the same structural tides.
The Main Character, on the other hand, represents a point-of-view—a personal look into the issues at hand. Main Character and Protagonist are not always one and the same. They can be, but not always. But because many assume they are and because the Main Character often doesn't shift into gear (pardon the pun here) until that First Act Turn, many see that moment as the story's Inciting Incident.
Thus, while Marty certainly has a hand in this Act Turn that does not mean it actually starts the story. That jump through time certainly starts the "fun and games" moment of the movie, but it doesn't start the story. Instead another event claims that title, an event that - if it had never happened - would have precluded the need for Marty to ever push the DeLorean to ninety.
The Driving Events of Time Travel
The Inciting Incident of Back to the Future happens when Doc screws over the Libyans. Substituting pinball machine parts for plutonium effectively starts the inequity of the story and guarantees the subsequent act turns. Without that event, time would have simply marched on as it always has.
Continuing the analysis of key structural moments, The First Act Turn would therefore be the moment Marty pushes the DeLorean to 90 mph. The Midpoint—or next major driving point—can be found when Marty bests Biff in the town center, thus cementing his mom's affection for him. The Second Act turn, or subsequent major driving point, occurs when George finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out cold. Each of these turns the story to a place where it cannot return. Each of these develops the initial inequity put into place by Doc's scam.
Bringing an End to the Madness
So returning to that famous line, getting Marty "back to the future" must be the Concluding Event, correct? Not quite. The problem with that line of thinking lies within the fact that the story still needs to work through some unresolved business. Returning back to 1985 didn't really solve anything. It is a step in the right direction, but it is not truly what is at stake within the story. Instead, the Concluding Event finds itself tied to the Inciting Event.
Doc cheats once again.
By taping the pieces of Marty's letter back together, Doc successfully brings an end to the problems caused by his initial egotistical blunder. Marty and Doc win. The problems of the story come to a resolution.
A Goal for All
Essentially then, the goal of Back to the Future was to beat the space-time continuum. They didn't simply restore it, they kicked its ass. That was, after all, what Doc hoped to accomplish when he first dreamt up the wormhole-chomping Delorean monster machine. He cheated the Libyans because he wanted to beat the timeline he felt trapped in. Marty jumped back to the 50s because he was cheating death. Same too with his attempt to head back to 1985 ten minutes earlier. Time's a bitch as they say, and both Doc and Marty worked their mojo to overcome it. Doc's final cheat was simply the final nail in the coffin.
They beat time.
Constructing a Solid Story
The key to having a story work out properly, for it to "make sense" to an audience, lies firmly within the application of the mind's problem-solving process to the events of a narrative. Understanding how the Inciting Incident creates the inequity that the story-mind must resolve makes an Author's efforts towards communication a purposeful endeavor. Having a character verbalize his or her goal panders to an audience and simply does not guarantee comprehension.
Goals exist as a tool for Author's to construct meaningful stories. They are not a panacea for bad storytelling.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
The concern with how things will be, over whether or not there will be a future, seems to lie more heavily within Marty himself. Doc has a thing or two to say about this, but when you factor in all the other characters—the mayor, the Libyans, the guy on the park-bench, the hormonal mom and the dweeb dad—the future simply doesn't fit.
Marty's Main Character Concern is the Future. Marty is a McFly, always has been, always will be. Escaping that prison of inheritance becomes everything to him. Returning home to find his future set translates into a Story Judgment of Good.
Steadfast, Stop, Do-er, Linear, Action, Optionlock, Success, Good, Physics, Obtaining, Self-Interest, Avoidance
"Tying The Towers of Story Structure Together"
Ever wonder why the works of Shakespeare endure hundreds of years later? What of Tolstoy or Shaw? One possible explanation exists, an explanation that has everything to do with the integrity that comes with a solid story structure.
What discussion of story structure could be considered complete without a chart? Those attracted to such devices–structuralists– love order and pounce on every opportunity to see storytelling delineated into clearly defined boxes. Luckily, the Dramatica theory of story structure (narrative science) has the ultimate chart for these crazed lunatics:
Impressive yes? This Table of Story Elements breaks the individual pieces of narrative down into separate and distinct families of elements. At first glance it seems to be simply a collection of familiar and not-so-familiar terms, but look what happens when one pulls back and shifts the point-of-view ever so-slightly:
From this angle one can see that the Dramatica Table of Story Elements exists as a 3-D model of story-structure! More than simply a linear progression of timed events, this model of story frames a complete model of human psychology by breaking down narrative into four distinct levels–Character, Plot, Theme and Genre. This chart does more than define a story…it is story.
But stories are monumental things and to build something as full and robust as a great classical narrative one has to reach ever higher and higher. Only one catch. Anyone who has ever sat down with a bucket of Legos and a 6-year old eventually reaches that point where they can't build the tower any higher without risking collapse. Multiply this by four and the need for a solid foundation and perhaps even some interlocking "bridges" becomes all too clear.
So what is that keeps these towers of psychological structure from toppling over?
Looking at the very bottom level of the structure one finds the various elements of character found in every great story. Temptation, Chaos, Proaction and Expectation represent just a small portion of the 64 individual "traits" that can be combined and mixed to create character.
Examining further one may also notice that the same set of 64 elements repeats itself within each tower–albeit with slightly different arrangements. This falls in line with the theory as each "tower" really acts like a lens focused on the same thing–namely, the story's central problem. The throughlines represented by each tower offer audiences perspective (I, You, We and They) and this point-of-view–depending on where one is looking from–determines how those base elements will appear.
But more importantly, these similar elements offer the first and strongest instance of the ties that bond the throughlines together.
Depending on the story's dynamics 2–3 of these towers will share the same Problem and Solution element. In other words, they'll see the story's central problem as being the same thing. Likewise 2–3 of them will see the Symptom and Response to those problems as being the same. Regardless of the story's dynamics, in the end, all four throughlines will interconnect by virtue of these common elements. Thus, the similarities in how these perspectives witness the conflict and apparent conflict pull the four throughlines together, binding them together tightly at the base.
The next level up one finds a another set of entanglements, only this time more thematic in nature. Set apart into 64 touch points across all four throughlines (as opposed to the 64 found in each at the Character level), these Variations define the various Issues and Counterpoints found in each Throughline.
But they also call to attention the Unique Abilities and Critical Flaws of the two central characters–the Main and Influence Character–and the Catalysts and Inhibitors of the Overall and Relationship Throughline.
Interestingly enough, again depending on the story's dynamics, several of these appreciations will be found in a tower other than the one they are associated with. A Main Character dealing with issues of Preconception (in the Situation tower) might find their critical flaw in his or her Approach (located in the Activity tower). Likewise a Relationship with deep Commitment issues (the Manipulation tower) might find doing what is best for others (Morality, again in the Activity tower) a real downer to their relationship. Regardless of the particulars, these connections and similar thematic tissue insure that these towers of structure won't topple into one another.
From here on up the connections become looser and less entangled. This makes sense–one would hope the foundation to be rock solid, while simultaneously allowing for a little wobble towards the top.
The next step higher one finds 16 cornerstones of structure most akin to plot. Past, Progress, Doing, Obtaining–all different elements of plot that define the type of narrative conflict found in each and every Act.
They also help guide the audiences attention in the right direction. In order for a story to "hold together", the major Concern–or area of focus–for each Throughline must be centered in the same quadrant for each story. In other words, if one Throughline finds itself concerned with Obtaining, then the other Throughlines must have Concerns of The Future, Innermost Desires and Changing One's Nature. If instead the Concern is Doing, then How Things Are Changing, Impulsive Responses and Playing a Role must show up as Concerns in the other throughlines. In this way, a story guarantees that the viewer (or reader) will be able to appreciate some meaning by looking at the same thing through different eyes.
Note that the connections here do not involve cross-pollination as they did with the previous two levels. They begin to show the signs of individuality one would find in broadening the scope of the viewport. Similarities appear because of the consistent focal point, but they don't involve thematic or elemental material from another tower.
Upon reaching the zenith of each story structure tower, one finds the four basic ways of categorizing (or seeing) conflict. No matter what the source of trouble for characters in a story, conflict must always fall in either a Situation, an Activity, a Way of Thinking (or Manipulation) or a Fixed Attitude. It's impossible to define conflict any other way.
But you'll notice how broad and general these terms are when compared to the specifics found in the lower levels. By assigning the throughlines to these four domains of conflict, one sets the personality of a story: and thus why they come closest to defining Genre.
But Genres are fluid, like personalities, and thus the ties that bond them are looser in nature than those below. Make no mistake they still exist: external conflicts across the top (Situation and Activity), internal along the bottom (Fixed Attitude and Way of Thinking), states, or static sources of conflict across one diagonal (Situation and Fixed Attitude), and processes of conflict spanning the other (Activity and Way of Thinking). Here the towers connect through their relationships to one another, thus creating a holistic model out of something that on the surface appears strictly logical. While not as tangled and intertwined as the base, this highest level of story structure works to maintain the integrity of the mechanism as a whole.
Understanding the connective tissue between these towers helps one to better appreciate the complexity of a solid and complete story. Those tales and flights-of-fantasy fiction that ignore the common-sense building techniques of solid structure risk creating a faulty and ultimately doomed enterprise. With the knowledge of the psychological underpinnings related to the construction of a working story, authors everywhere can build structures destined to survive several lifetimes.
"A Positive Spin on Problems"
A character at rest tends to stay at rest. Newton's laws apply to story as well as they do to the physical world. What exactly then motivates a character to get up and start moving?
Stories begin with the interruption of peace. Sometimes referred to as the "Inciting Incident", this disruption manifests within the Main Character an inequity, a separateness that must be dealt with one way or another. This inequity drives the Main Character forward, sparking the engine of story.
Problems That Really Aren't Problems
The very best way to stop a Main Character from doing the kinds of things they do then, lies in resolving this inequity. Most authors recognize this process and write it in to their stories by virtue of satisfying the Main Character's "needs."
In Dramatica (narrative science theory), the Main Character's Solution specifically identifies the nature of what is needed for this resolution. Confronted with the term "Solution" one would quite naturally assume the existence of a Problem, and Dramatica does not disappoint in this respect. For every Main Character Solution there exists an appropriate Main Character Problem.
Unfortunately this term is a bit of a misnomer.
Problems imply something bad, and unfortunately, this does not apply to every story. The Main Character's Problem actually describes the nature of the inequity that infuses the Main Character Throughline with life. Inequities, unlike problems, don't inherently claim the status of good or bad. They just are. How the inequity plays out within the story, however, does determine its positive or negative value.
An inequity that leads to positive growth appears to the Audience as a motivating force. An inequity that creates negative growth (or difficulties) looks to be a problem. Regardless of how they appear to the Audience, they still work the same within a story and occupy the same place within Dramatica concept of the storyform. They still push the Main Character into a story.
The Main Character's Problem
These two alternative ways of looking at the same structural concept reveal themselves quite strongly through another key concept, the Main Character's Resolve. When the Main Character changes (or flips if you prefer), the Main Character Problem will feel like a problem. When the Main Character remains steadfast, the Main Character Problem will feel more like a motivating force, or source of drive.
They both still operate the same way within a story, they still push the Main Character through his or her Throughline, but they do come across differently depending on how the rest of the story is constructed.
Interestingly enough, this same dynamic can be found in other throughlines as well.
Relationship Problems for The Good
The 2008 Swedish film Let the Right One In provides a wonderful opportunity to see this dynamic at work in other throughlines. While firmly rooted within the horror genre, this film focuses almost all if its attention on the growing relationship between a young boy and the 12-year old vampire he falls in love with. This throughline, referred to in Dramatica as the Relationship Story Throughline, sees Pursuit as the problem between them.
But when they pursue each other, it actually brings them closer, not farther apart as one would expect from a Relationship Story Problem.
Like the example of the Steadfast Main Character above, the Relationship Story Problem in this case, acts more like a motivating force for their budding romance. When she shows up at the jungle gym or when he chases after Morse code to get closer to her or even when she steps inside his apartment without being asked–all of these drive their relationship in a positive direction. Pursuit defines the inequity between them, not a specific source of difficulties in a negative sense.
Contrast this with the example of a Relationship Story Problem of Pursuit in another film, 1969's beloved Breakfast at Tiffany's. In this story, Pursuit really does act like a Problem between them. When Paul pursues Holly, she runs away–killing any chance of them being together. By pushing too hard to make a relationship, Paul insures there will never be one.
Only by applying the Relationship Story Solution of Avoidance, does Paul guarantee she'll come running back to him. We need to separate and that will bring us together. That's the kind of thinking at work here. And it does work.
Avoidance applied to the relationship in Let the Right One In guarantees the two youngsters will never be together. When Eli tells Oskar "we can't be friends" she's trying to avoid, or prevent the two of them from getting closer. When she leaves him at the end, she dissolves the relationship. Only when she returns, when she comes back to Pursue him does she finally see this relationship through. A lack of resolution, but a positive growth nonetheless.
Look to Inequity
When is a problem not a problem? When it acts more as a source of drive rather than a messenger of difficulties. The Problems located at the base of each Throughline indicate the nature of the inequity as seen from that perspective. Understanding this allows Authors the freedom to develop solidly structured stories without feeling hampered by unnecessary constraints.
"A Reason for Rules"
Rules tend to offend the sensibilities of creative writers. The intricacies and nuances of crafting living, breathing characters from ink and type require free abandon. They rebel at the very thought that there could somehow be some order to their chosen form of expression.
Yet, works bred of ego and blind ambition often flounder when crossing the finish line that is Audience Reception. They show up--yet ultimately have nothing meaningful to say, in part because they didn't follow the "rule".
The First Rule of Narrative Science
By "rule", of course, we refer to a standard set when looking at story as an analogy to a single human mind trying to solve a problem. Rather than yet another in a hundred and some odd ways to beat the Hollywood reader, this reality occurs because of the processes that go on within the act of working out a problem. Dramatica (the first iteration of Narrative Science) sees story this way. If you don't, if you see story as having no boundaries and no limitations then by all means, write to your heart's content. Fly, be free.
Just don't expect the rest of us to remain engaged in your work.
Audiences expect stories to think like they do. Run counter to their instinctual responses and they'll turn away in droves.
One of the very first of these rules to be encountered within Dramatica states that when it comes to the two central characters of a story--the Main Character and Influence Character--one will change, and the other will remain steadfast.
If they both change the story breaks.
How Can a Character Not Change?
Eventually this standard finds the need to defend itself when it comes to certain great films. Consider Toy Story. Certainly both Woody and Buzz change. Woody finds it within himself to allow another toy the top spot and Buzz discovers he's not really the Space Ranger he thought he was. What about The Sixth Sense? Obviously Malcom Crowe (the Bruce Willis character) changes, but doesn't little Cole change as well when he finally musters up the courage to visit the poisoned girl? And what of Pride and Prejudice doesn't that classic beloved novel tell the story of two characters meeting in the middle?
Perhaps Narrative Science misses the mark. Perhaps there are exceptions to this rule...
The problem lies in Dramatica's definition of change and what most people mean when they think of characters changing.
How Narrative Science Sees Character
Contrary to centuries of thought on story, Dramatica sees the two central characters of a story not as fully imagined three-dimensional people, but rather as a context for perspective. Remember the basic given about stories as analogies to problem-solving? To fully comprehend and gain meaning from this act of problem-solving, all perspectives need to be addressed. One man's terrorist is another man's freedom-fighter? That's the kind of dissonance differing perspectives offer; that's how a story grants greater meaning to its events.
The Main Character gives the Audience an intimate perspective of the story's central problem. From here we experience what it is like to actually deal with the problem personally, as if "I" have the problem. The Influence Character offers up an alternative to the Main Character's stance by showing how someone else deals with the problem. From there we experience what it is like for "You" to deal with the problem.
The Overall Story Throughline and the Relationship Story Throughline round out those perspectives by offering us a chance to see how "They" experience the problem and how "We" experience the problem, respectively. But for now, seeing the Main Character and Influence Character as perspectives rather than fully-realized people makes it easier to explain the reason for that first rule.
Giving Meaning through Problem-Solving
The Influence Character enters the picture and tension mounts. Conflict now occurs because two competing perspectives have come into play; two different approaches towards solving the story's central problem. Both believe their view correct, both believe the other wrong. In order for this model of story as problem-solving process to work out, one must eventually give way to the other. Capitulation leads to resolution which in turn, leads to meaning. By showing whether or not the "winning" perspective leads to triumph or tragedy, the Author proves the appropriateness of using a certain perspective to solve problems.
The Author crafts greater meaning to a story's events.
Sometimes the Influence Character was right, the Main Character changes perspective and the story results in triumph (Star Wars, The King's Speech and Finding Nemo). Sometimes it was the Main Character who was right, the Influence Character justly surrenders and the story results in triumph (Star Trek, In the Heat of the Night, and The Iron Giant). Sadly though there are times when being "right" was actually wrong. The Main Character "wins" with the Influence Character changing perspective, yet the result tumbles into tragedy (Brokeback Mountain, Moulin Rouge! and Reservoir Dogs).
Regardless of the particular combination, the reason one character "changes" and the other "remains steadfast" becomes apparent: by showing the result of one taking one perspective over another an Author offers up their take on the appropriate (or inappropriate) way to solve a particular problem. In plain-English, the writer basically says, "Take this approach and you'll likely end up in the dumps"(The Wild Bunch) or "Adopt his way of seeing things and you'll likely end up triumphant" (Amélie).
The rule gives purpose to story.
But What About Meeting Halfway?
If both principal characters change their perspectives, the outcome of the story loses all purpose. Who's approach was the best? How am I to solve my own problems in life? What exactly was this story trying to say?
Surely compromise solves problems. But in order to tell that story, one character would have to maintain an all-or-nothing perspective while the other would call for greater synergy. The former would eventually change and the story would end in triumph, proving that compromise solves problems.
When a story simply shows two characters coming together, both changing, that alternative perspective ceases to exist and a hole the size of Texas (or perhaps Antarctica) opens up within the story's argument. The Author fails to show the problem from all sides. Suddenly the Author leaves space for exceptions, giving opportunity for an Audience to dissent and eventually discount their work wholesale.
In other words, no one will go see the movie.
A Call for Greater Clarity
Rules of story structure--at least the kind of "rules" found in Dramatica--exist to give purpose to the telling of a story. Break them and the story itself becomes dysfunctional. Rare is the Audience member who voluntarily hangs out with a schizophrenic mind.
Still, one can't argue with the success and greatness of Toy Story, The Sixth Sense and Pride and Prejudice. Do these stories fail in making their arguments? Clearly the principal characters in each changes their perspectives. How does one explain their effectiveness as complex stories within the context of this rule of change and steadfast?
The answer lies within the next in this series on Character and Change: Flipping Perspectives
"Why The Main Character's Approach"
Main Characters make decisions and they take actions. They engage in deliberation and they get things done. Yet for some reason, Narrative Science seemingly requires both Analysts and Authors to force their Main Characters into choosing one or the other.
Referred to in Dramatica (the first version of Narrative Science) as the Main Character's Approach, this story point files the great characters of literature and the silver screen into two boxes: Do-ers or Be-ers. The former act first then ask questions later, while the latter first internalize before then making their move. Limiting and reductive at first glance, the reason for this determination lies in a better appreciation of the mind's problem-solving process and its place within the structure of a compelling and meaningful story.
A Place to Begin
Functioning stories exist as models of human psychology–in particular, the process of problem-solving. One of the first steps to take when solving a problem lies in determining exactly where to place one's effort while attempting resolution. Should I try to change the world around me or should I try to change myself? Answering this question initiates the process of problem-solving. Ignoring it ignites the process of justification (or hiding the problem from ourselves).
Problems don't exist outside of us, nor do they exist within us–rather, they exist in the area between us and our environment. Because we can't address that inequity directly, we must focus our efforts on one area or the other–thus, the Main Character's Approach.
When faced with internal issues we focus on ourselves. When faced with external issues we focus on our environment. Why? Finding internal solutions for internal problems is much easier than searching for external ones. Likewise, exploring external solutions for problems within the external environment becomes a much easier task than searching for an internal one.
This Approach often shows itself as a preference on behalf of the Main Character. Do-ers prefer to do the work outside, Be-ers prefer to do the work inside.
The Path of Least Resistance
A Main Character facing personal issues growing from an external state of affairs or an external activity will approach their problem first by taking action. As a poor playwright with nothing to show for his efforts, William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) searches externally for a new muse in Shakespeare in Love. Hogarth Hughes (Eli Marienthal) from The Iron Giant seeks adventure and action from a life that has neither.
Conversely, a Main Character experiencing personal issues emanating from an internal attitude or dysfunctional way of thinking will approach their problem first by modifying their behavior. Sully (John Goodman) from Monsters, Inc. finds his greatest asset–fright–to be a behavior in need of change if he is to ever grow closer to Boo. Meanwhile "Deanie" Loomis (Natalie Wood) from Splendor in the Grass attempts to re-wire her behavior–even going so far as to accept institutionalization–in order to keep from slipping further into madness.
In each of these cases, the Main Character approaches their personal problem by first taking that path of least resistance. External takes external, internal takes internal. Realizing this, one can easily see how the Main Character's Approach can be used to identify the source of that central character's personal problem as well as their response to it.
Assuming the Right Perspective
Key to pinpointing the source of these personal problems remains an accurate account of point-of-view. Are we taking a first person perspective or are we looking at it from a distance? Is the inattentive parent on the bus letting their child run rampant out of neglect, or is it because they've just received devastating news that they're to raise the child on their own? One can't can't asses inequity without first taking into account perspective.
Same with story.
The examples of story given above focus on the issues facing each of those Main Characters personally. They may have other concerns within the larger picture or within other relationships, but when it comes down to dealing with my problems, and what am I facing (as required by the Main Character perspective) that first-person point-of-view becomes all important.
Creating a Mind for the Audience
It isn't as if Main Characters can't both Do and Be within a story. The concept of Main Character Approach certainly allows for well-rounded characters exhibiting both qualities. But the end-game can't become a quest to capture down on paper "real people".
Approach plays out as a preference because stories do not replicate real life. Rather, stories exist as constructs designed to communicate meaning by creating a "mind" for the Audience to possess. The Main Character represents the first-person perspective of this mind and thus, from that point-of-view sees the problem as being either internal or external (because it can't see that true problem in-between the two). Taking the path of least resistance this story-mind approaches that problem by tackling external problems with actions and internal ones with behavior modification.
Why then ask for the Main Character's Approach during the course of crafting a story? In answering that question, one can help solidify the Audience's position within the mind of a story while simultaneously granting clues as to the work and effort put forth by the Main Character to resolve their personal issues.
Avoiding The False Moment Of Character
Character development, and its inherent impact on plot, develops naturally over the course of a story. When that organic journey is somehow interrupted by an illogical or emotionally inaccurate progression, a false moment occurs and the story breaks down.
These are the moments that audiences simply can't justify away, no matter how hard they try. Once an event conflicts with the internal structure of the story's overall purpose, the mind on the receiving end of a story shuts down, instinctively recognizing the disparity in the message. Emotional growth is a complex mechanism, one misplaced piece and the entire message of the story becomes lost in the rubble of good intentions.
3:10 to Yuma (2007) is one of these films.
As wonderful as the cinematography, the direction, and the performances are, this film suffers from a false moment that tarnishes all the work that went into it. It is a moment of falsehood that happens deep within the third act, standing out as brightly as any celestial supernova in the emptiness of space. As a fan of the film, one hopes that on subsequent viewings, this leap of character will somehow have been magically transformed into something more closely approaching truth.
Unfortunately that doesn't happen.
The Story of 3:10 to Yuma
3:10 to Yuma tells the story of Dan Evans (Christian Bale) and his efforts to save his family farm by escorting notorious bad man Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) to a train station in Contention, Arizona. There is a reward for getting Wade there before the 3:10 prison train arrives and Dan intends on securing it for himself and for those he loves.
Dan, a Civil War veteran hampered by the loss of his left leg, finds himself in a hopeless situation. With only a drought-ridden ranch to his name and massive debt to a local wealthy rancher, Dan becomes overwrought with his inability to see to the future well-being of his family. But even more drastic is the disdain he feels from his oldest son, William (Logan Lerman).
A teenager with all the answers, William makes no effort hiding the shame he feels for his father's apparent cowardice, going so far as to tell his Dad that "I'm never walking in your shoes." This tenuous relationship between father and son represents the heart of the story, its eventual catharsis the shared hope of every audience member.
Both William and Wade share the same drive to rush into things, to take action, and in that respect, they serve the same dramatic impact on Dan's growth of character. Wade even makes the suggestion that William reminds him of himself as a young boy. Dan strenuously disagrees, and it is in this clash of perspectives that the cracks in Dan's character begin to appear; both William and Wade are of the same opinion of what it means to be a man and Dan sadly doesn't fit the bill.
One by one their posse whittles down until only Dan and William are left to cater Wade half-a-mile through the bounty-hunter infested streets of Contention. As the clock approaches three, Wade offers Dan more money than the railroad ever promised him. Dan politely declines. How could he face his son knowing that he compromised with a known villain?
The two set off through the streets, pursued at every corner. $200 dollars awaits the local gunsligner who shoots Dan cold. The two dodge flying bullets as they race towards the train station. Eventually they crash into a stock room –
And it is here where the story falls apart.
Wade turns the tables on Dan, telling him his journey stops here. Wade is not getting on that train. A fight erupts in which Wade manages to get the upper-hand. Under the chain-link pressure of Wade's handcuffs, Dan spits out the sad story about how he really lost his leg – someone in his own Company shot him. Mention is made of how pitiful he felt relaying that story of supposed heroism to his son…
And for some God-forsaken reason, Wade changes his mind.
The Correct Way to Resolve a Problem
Of course, this moment had to happen. Logically it doesn't make sense that Wade would run alongside Dan all the way to the train station. There has to be some reason why Wade wouldn't just delay Dan long enough for his deadly gang of bandoliers to save him. But there is a difference between the right reason for doing something and just any old reason.
There should be some connection between all that happened in the proceeding two hours and those last final moments.
The problems between Dan and Wade stem from Dan's steadfast conscience. While others are quick to take the easy way out, Dan somehow stays in the game. This intrigues Wade and gives motivation for their friendship to develop. Thematically it is also this sense of conscience that ignites the flames of conflict between Dan and his son. With their barn on fire, William wants to rush in regardless of personal safety; Dan stalls him, forgoing the rescue of their personal effects for fear of even deadlier consequences.
With conscience the major source of problems within Dan's relationships, the solution rightly becomes temptation. You can't overcome conscience with even more conscience – that doesn't even make sense. You don't heal a wound by making it deeper. Yet somehow this is what they wrote into the story of 3:10 to Yuma.
Wade's decision to loosen the pressure on Dan's neck comes with an appeal from Dan to Wade's sense of conscience. Telling the story of how he really lost his leg only maintains the presence of the problem between them. With their relationship continuing on the way it always has, why should Wade change? Why does he start treating him like a friend?
Wade's change comes because it is necessary for the plot, not because of any meaningful character growth, and this is precisely why that moment feels false. In breaking the structure the Authors had so diligently setup in the proceeding Acts, the story broke down and audiences everywhere were left shouting at the screen (either internally or externally), Why is he doing that?!
Maintaining the Integrity of the Story
What if instead, Dan had taken the easy way out and accepted Wade's payoff? What if he had given in to temptation and employed the solution to the problems between them. Wouldn't there have been at least some reason for Wade to change?
Wade's biggest issue was his abandonment by his mother at an early age. Through the course of the story we learn that this tragic turn of events was quite possibly the thing that made him so bad. This wonderfully simple, yet powerful backstory, explains why Wade is so intrigued with Dan's sense of conscience – he never knew a parent quite like him. It is also why he plays with Dan throughout the film, checking to see the breaking points, and how he might possibly turn the crippled rancher to become more like himself.
So if instead of pleading to Wade's sense of conscience, Dan decided to take the shortcut to success, Wade would have a reason to change and help Dan finish the journey. Why? Wade obviously has a problem with the way he personally turned out, why would he then want the same thing to happen to William were the boy to find out how his father basically "abandoned" him morally by selling out? Wade would see Dan's compromise as a repeat of what his mother did to him and thus, would have a reason for taking the helpless father the rest of the way.
This shift in their relationship would naturally lead to Wade's change of character.
It would play out something like this (with all due respect to the original screenplay for 3:10 to Yuma):
INT. MINING SUPPLY SHOP – DAY
As they enter, a shot clips Wade in the shoulder, knocking him back. Dan spins, firing at–
A LOCAL GUNMAN who drops.
Lungs clutching for air, Dan glances out the door behind them, shots still reporting from the street. He turns and faces Wade.
DAN: That's it, Wade. This is where we part.
WADE: (confused) What?
DAN: I'm taking you up on your offer. The reward. All one thousand of it. I want it.
Dan pulls the REVOLVER from his belt and hands it to Wade.
DAN: Just make it look real. And not the leg. I'd like to have at least one good one.
SHOUTS outside as their pursuers move in close.
WADE: I can't shoot you Dan.
Another GUNMAN bursts into the room. Wade BLASTS him with the speed of a jack rabbit.
DAN: If you can't do it, I will–
Dan reaches for the gun, Wade pulls away.
WADE: That what happened to your leg?
DAN: I never said I was a hero. Never even seen battle. They outnumbered us five to one that day, Wade.
WADE: So you shot yourself to keep from the line.
DAN: Tried to tell my boy I lost it retreating from friendly fire. He saw right through me.
WADE: And he'll see through you again. Trust me.
DAN: I guess I'll deal with that when the time comes.
WADE: No you won't.
Out the cracked stock room door, WADE SPIES A ROOF WORKER'S LADDER.
EXT. ROOFTOPS, CONTENTION - DAY
Wade dashes across CITY ROOFTOPS dodging WILD GUNFIRE from below. Dan follows close behind. Both stop before jumping over a narrow alleyway.
WADE: You sure you can make this?
Without thinking twice, Dan leaps across, pulling Wade with him. The impact sends a spasm of pain through his bad leg.
WADE: I like this side of you Dan.
They jump a second alleyway. Dan is in agony.
And so on, until they finally reach the ticket booth.
With these new pages, Dan's embrace of temptation resolves the major source of conflict between the two gunmen. With this increased understanding of one another, their friendship flourishes and they now have a viable meaningful reason for making those last precious steps towards the awaiting train. The Authors wanted this friendly repartee, almost buddy-film like conversation, as the two weaved there way form bridal suite to train station; why not give it a viable believable reason for existing?
In addition, there was a slight change to Dan's backstory: his infirmary came as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound instead of the ambiguous "lost my foot during a retreat" reason given in the original screenplay. While effectively connecting Dan's personal story with that of the relationship between he and Wade, it also speaks volumes as to why Dan becomes so heated in regards to people helping or not helping him. Having committed the ultimate act of cowardice in the Civil War, he would think himself less than worthy of any outside assistance.
Again, every part of a story – even the backstory – contributes to the overall message of the piece.
Of course, once in that relatively peaceful shack of protection, Dan would have to reestablish this steadfastness:
INT. TICKET BOOTH, TRAIN STATION - DAY
Inside the booth, Dan winces with the pain rippling through his body. He has GUNSHOT WOUNDS in his arms and legs. Blood also trickles from a head wound…
…Wade takes a KERCHIEF out of his pocket and begins to make a TOURNIQUET around Dan's leg.
Dan pushes him away, refusing the assistance. Finishes it himself.
DAN: I ain't stubborn…
WADE: (confused) What.
DAN: At the camp, you said I was stubborn for…For keeping my family on that ranch…
WADE: Yeah well, what else you call it.
DAN: It's my son… Mark… The younger one. Got tuberculosis when he was two… Doctors said he'd die if he… He didn't have a dry climate.
WADE: What're you telling me this for.
DAN: (shrugs) Guess I wanted you to know I'm not stubborn is all… Ben.
Wade stares at Dan's grin, and starts to smile himself.
Friendship sealed, personal motivating issues back on track.
The only change from the original material was Dan's refusal of Ben's help. The one thing driving Dan throughout the story was that no one ever raised a hand to help him – not even God. To accept fully Wade's offer would only weaken his resolve, breaking the story's message in the process. Wade and William were the ones who were ultimately supposed to change. Dan…well, Dan was supposed to be stubborn.
The Steadfast Main Character
As mentioned in the article What Character Arc Really Means, a Main Character does not have to transformationally change in order to grow. Dan Evans was one of these characters. Some may argue, but doesn't the suggestion of having Dan take the money classify him more as the traditional Change Main Character?
Dan's personal issues weren't so much about doing the right thing as much as they were about doing what was needed because no one would help him. Sure, the issue of conscience was important in the context of his relationship with his son and with Wade, but personally, his steadfastness comes as a result of the problems he endures because no one will help him. Maintaining that drive signifies his staunch resolve.
Besides, Steadfast Main Characters are allowed to buckle; they're not supposed to be this one note that rings solidly from opening curtain to final credit. As long as in the end they continue to do things the way they always have, they can be accurately referred to as Steadfast. In fact, one could argue that wavering steadfast characters are more true-to-life, even more honest than their simple straight-minded cousins.
Truth in Structure
False moments occur when an Author does not fully understand the real problems and issues facing their characters. They happen when the feeling is that something is supposed to happen here, but what exactly that something unfortunately is remains elusive or unclear. Stories in relative state of development everywhere suffer from this disease, a disease that can easily be avoided with the proper understanding of meaningful story structure.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
3:10 to Yuma presents the classic American Pursuit story, that is, the old standby of an Obtaining Story with an Overall Story Problem of Pursuit. Because Dan is a Steadfast Situation Character (lost his leg in the war), he finds himself driven by Help and scorned with Issues of Preconception (what his wife and boy think of him). While the storyform signifies his Problem as Help, in Steadfast characters this problem is seen more as a drive than a problem. It also happens to be the reason why he needs to continue being driven by it at the end of the story.
William and Wade, both Change Impact Characters, end up plagued by Pursuit as well, exemplified by their need to always jump into things head first, particularly on the part of William. Their Solution of Avoid is nicely shown with both Wade preventing his gang from freeing him and William dropping the gun on Wade and pulling away from him.
With these elements set into place, the rest of the storyform falls into place – MC Growth of Stop, MC Approach of Do-er, MC Mental Sex Male, Story Driver of Action, Story Limit of Timelock, Story Outcome of Success and Story Judgment of Good.
Does this mean that these professional screenwriters used Dramatica to help craft this story? Who knows…if nothing else, it speaks highly of the program's ability to holistically map out good story sense. Ignoring Wade's false moment of character, the story otherwise flows quite nicely, with an ending that is both satisfying and emotionally fulfilling – the hallmarks of any great story.
Whether or not it had any place in the production process at all, though, Dramatica does accurately point out the reason why that moment seems so false and provides an easy way to fix it.
The Relationship Story Throughline, that is the relationship between Dan and Wade/William, suffers from a Problem of Conscience and therefore can only be resolved with a Solution of Temptation. This solution is not present at all in the final version of the film and, as explained in the article above, is the one thing that could have made their eventual friendship make sense. Continuing to employ the Problem of Conscience did nothing to shift the balance of conflict in their relationship and explains clearly why this was a false moment of character.
Without a doubt, Disney's Tangled delivers some of the best 3D character animation, rivaling the skill and artistry of the company's traditional 2D legacy. Yet, while following in the footsteps of their legacy brings visual success, maintaining the company's unique brand of storytelling does not.
Face it – the Disney classics of old (pre the Little Mermaid) were not great stories. They were tales. Mid 20th-century audiences, familiar with many of these tales and comfortable with the relative simplicity of the linear events, took to these films with ease and comfort. Audiences filled in many of the story holes with their own knowledge of these tales and brandished little complaint.
This isn't to say those films weren't charming, or that they weren't packed with sincere honest character moments.
They simply weren't stories.
Tangled suffers from the same fate. Tales lay out a simple linear plot progression: this happens, then this happens, then this happens, the end. The only meaning one can extrapolate from such a construct lies in comparing where the characters began with where they ended up. Cut the journey off earlier or let it prolong a little while and the final destination shifts. Different resting spot, different meaning.
A Purpose for Storytelling
Stories, on the other hand, present arguments. Through the machinations of character, plot, theme and genre an Author argues that one particular approach fares better or worse than another while solving a particular problem. Cutting the journey shorter or making it longer may change the ending, but it won't change what the story means. Within this process, story points resonate throughout the piece into one large holistic purpose. The key to providing this experience lies in consistency and a clear structural basis.
In all, there are four major areas where Tangled breaks this process:
- Unclear Main Character
- Both Principle Characters Change
- No Protagonist
- No Consequence
Unraveling these story issues should help clarify the difference between a story and a tale, and hopefully suggest ways to avoid any further entanglements.
Unclear Main Character
Obviously the story is about Rapunzel…so how can one possibly argue that the Main Character was unclear? Quite simply, it is never clear to the Audience whose shoes they are supposed to be standing in. At times we see the film from Rapunzel's viewpoint. Other times we feel like we are riding along with Flynn, empathizing with his plight. The filmmakers themselves even felt this duality, as evidenced by the opening narration that tells you in no uncertain terms know whose story this is.
Now, narration by itself does not determine a Main Character point-of-view. There are instances of narration that are objective and do not involve an Audience into personal issues central to that experience. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Scout narrates the story as an adult, not as her younger Main Character self. In The Usual Suspects, Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) relates the events of days gone past, yet manages to hold back key information. Tangled on the other hand, provides us much more through the eyes of its narrator.
There are two very different Flynns operating within this movie. There is the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and challenges her status as a locked-away princess. And then there is the Flynn who steals the crown, yet ultimately gives it up for love. The former operates properly as an Influence Character to Rapunzel's Main Character. The latter works as Main Character. We don't see Flynn's struggle from afar, we experience firsthand – up close and personal – the very definition of a Main Character.
Whether or not this came as a result of marketing influences determined to appeal to a broader Male audience (the film, after all used to be called Rapunzel) or as a result of several different and competing visions matters little. The final analysis remains the same: Audiences were confused as to whose side of the argument they were supposed to be on.
Both Characters Change
Pile on this grave mistake with the unfortunate reality that both Rapunzel and Flynn philosophically change their point-of-views. If both principle characters change, all meaning is lost.
Story works like this: One character says I believe this, and there's nothing you can do or say to change my mind. Another character comes along and challenges the first by saying Oh yeah, well you're looking in the wrong place because I believe this and there's no way I'm going to change my mind. The two battle it out back and forth until ultimately one gives in and changes over to the other's point-of-view. Match this change with whether or not that decision was right or wrong and the Author has crafted a Meaningful Ending. In this way, The Author has proved, or argued, the appropriateness of one approach over another.
When both characters shift their point-of-view, nothing is being said. As an Audience we can't tell what the Author was trying to say with their work.
That's a recipe for disaster.
Again, the Flynn who agrees to take Rapunzel out and falls in love with her is not the same Flynn who steals in the beginning then ultimately gives up that very same chase for the crown. The first Flynn remains steadfast in his approach while the second clearly changes.
And so does Rapunzel.
She wants nothing more than to leave, yet gives that up once she sees Flynn floating away. Yet moments later Flynn begins to change, culminating with his final show of sacrifice. So then which change is more appropriate? Who was in the right? What are the Authors trying to say? It's nice and sweet, but it really doesn't add up to anything in the end.
That dynamic of one character, or viewpoint, remaining steadfast while another character gravitates towards them defines the very core of a story. Obfuscate it with dual shifts and the audience will leave the theater confused and disappointed.
Wait a second, you may be thinking, Didn't you just explain how Tangled couldn't decide whether Flynn or Rapunzel was the Main Character? Doesn't that mean there were two Protagonists?
Main Characters are not automatically Protagonists. In the past those two terms were used interchangeably, but recent discoveries call upon the need for a redefinition. Authors must be able to distinguish between the point-of-view that is the Main Character and the objective character function of the Protagonist.
A Main Character provides the first person point-of-view for the Audience. The Protagonist is the character in pursuit of the Overall Story Goal. Now sometimes these two are one in the same, as in Star Wars, Drive, or Midnight in Paris. Other times they are not, as in the aforementioned To Kill A Mockingbird or The Terminator.
As established previously, Tangled clearly supplies the Main Character point-of-view whether through Rapunzel or Flynn. But who is the Protagonist and what are they after? What is the Story Goal?
If Rapunzel is the Protagonist then the Goal must be for her to see the lights. Yet this happens about 2/3 into the movie. Once the Goal is reached, the story is over. This is part of the definition of a Story Goal.
Besides, that Goal really doesn't classify as an Overall Story Goal as much as it does a personal Main Character Goal. Who else in the film finds themselves overly concerned with finding those lights? An Overall Story Goal – the kind a Protagonist chases after – sits as a concern for everyone in the story. It is an objective Goal that everyone is either for or against.
In this case, it becomes clear that the Goal of the story is to reunite the lost princess with her kingdom. Princess comes home and the inequity is resolved, the story is over.
But who is pursuing this Goal?
Certainly not the King or Queen. Sure they send up lights once a year, but beyond that? There really isn't anyone. The setup feels slightly lopsided as it is quite clear who the Antagonist is. Mother Gothel does whatever she can to prevent her gold mine from returning home. Is there even an objective character who could qualify as standing up against her in pursuit of this Goal?
Rapunzel eventually reaches this point, but far too along in the story for it to balance out the argument properly. Protagonists need to be aware of the Story Goal in order to seek the means to achieve it. That knowledge and the ensuing pursuit must be there in order for the story's argument to work. Otherwise the story comes off half-baked and unrealized. Rapunzel is neither aware nor consistent in her approach the way a Protagonist must be.
Thus, there is no Protagonist.
Adding further insult to energy, the film fails to correctly encode a Consequence.
No wonder there isn't a Protagonist!
Every Story Goal needs a Consequence. Whether it is the fear of having to live under tyranny in Star Wars or fighting the impulse to destroy a giant metal robot in Iron Giant, there must be a negative repercussion in place if the efforts towards the Story Goal fail. Why else would a Protagonist be driven to pursue if there wasn't something there motivating them (and the other characters for that matter)?
What are the consequences of the lost princess not returning home in Tangled? Sure there is sadness. But only once a year, and even then, there are kids playing in the streets dancing and carrying on! There is no Protagonist to be found because each and everyone of the kingdom's citizens gave up a long time ago.
There was nothing motivating them to make a difference.
Striving for Something More
With no Consequence, there is nothing driving a Protagonist, thus no need to include one within a story. With no Protagonist there is no outcome that can be meaningfully juxtaposed against the Main Character's final resolve to change or remain steadfast. Without a concrete resolve it doesn't really matter who the Main Character is, and thus no anchor point for an Audience member. No anchor point, no empathy, no Audience buy in.
No Audience buy in, no Audience buying…tickets.
This isn't to say there aren't those who enjoy the film. In fact, many have found Tangled more enjoyable the second or third time around. Unfortunately this is because they have given up on gaining any appreciable meaning out of the film and instead simply enjoy the visual candy. In short, they've turned off their minds.
Now it may be the filmmakers were content with simply telling a tale of old, and that's fine. Unfortunately audiences today crave more than a simple collection of events mashed up together in an ordered list. If they wanted that, they'd visit their Twitter stream.
Audiences want meaning. They want a reason for leaving their houses and sitting in that theater. They want an experience and a purpose to their viewing experience. They want something more than stereo-vision. They want to live in a moment they can't recreate on their own.
Stories can do this. They can fulfill the promise audiences expect from a movie by engaging their minds with purpose. Structured properly, with a solid consistent argument at the core, stories can move beyond simply visual delight.
This article originally appeared March 26, 2012 on Jim's "Story Fanatic" website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.
Black Swan and Star Wars: Cousins of Story Structure
One tells the story of an Earth-bound dancer who dreams of being the very best that ballet has to offer; the other tells the story of a whiny farmboy who leaves his dusty home to fight against an Evil Empire. Two dreamers at far corners of separate galaxies. How exactly can one claim that there is anything remotely similar between the two?
Because both characters are faced with the same problem.
Story Structure and Problem Solving
When one steps back and takes a look at what is really going on within a complete story, the process of problem-solving becomes apparent. A problem is introduced into the life of a Main Character and the efforts that come as a result determine whether or not that problem is ultimately resolved. Everything else that has to do with "structure" – whether it be saving a cat, or entering a special world, or meeting the mentor – is really a superficial construct built on top of the true reality that a story is about the efforts to resolve a problem.
Resolution, however, is not always a positive thing.
Peace of Mind or Emotional Turmoil?
In the concluding episode of Mad Men's Season One, Don Draper (John Hamm) begins to realize the tragic consequences his actions have had on those he loves. This resolution, or change, comes with his successful pitch to the suits from Kodak:
This device isn't a spaceship; it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel. It's called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.
He's speaking of Kodak's new gadget, but we know he is really speaking about himself. The problem of his philandering and self-centered approach has been solved, but only with a great emotional cost. Don returns home triumphant – only to find his house empty, his heart denied the usual emotional catharsis that comes when a problem is solved. Combining a change of heart with the crush of emotional turmoil contributes to the honesty and sincerity many point to as strengths of the show's writing.
This first season of Mad Men is the exception to the rule that change equals happiness. More often than not, the resolution of a Main Character's problem comes with a greater peace of mind, a release of personal angst. Returning the focus on this article's titular characters, it is clear to see that both Nina and Luke experience this overwhelming sense of relief with their own personal resolutions.
Luke Skywalker gets into trouble because he is always testing himself. Whether it's in the bar with Tatooine's ruffians or out in the rocks searching for R2, this drive he has to see how good he measures up is his problem.
Nina Sayers suffers from the same problem. Whether it's due to the pressures she feels from her mother constantly checking up on her, or her own inner drive to see whether or not she can dance the dance of the Black Swan, Nina's troubles find their source in this drive to constantly check the validity of a certain belief, in this case, that she can measure up.
Dogfights in space and imaginary dance competitors are the various means with which each film communicates the effects of this problem, but in the end both films are examining the same problem. And because both characters face the same type of problem, they both will find resolution in the same place.
If someone experiences trouble because they are driven to check something out or because someone else tests them, their solution can only come in the form of trust. If you constantly check something and it only makes things worse, the best thing to do is to simply let go and trust that things will work out. In the same way that prevention can solve problems of pursuit (as in The Terminator), trusting something without checking first for validation solves a problem of test. Luke and Nina solve their individual problems precisely this way.
Luke trusts the Force. Nina trusts her body. In both cases, each character lets go and stops looking for validation. And, quite unlike poor old Don above, both Luke and Nina find peace of mind at the end of their journey. They both receive the accolades they once thought were mere fantasies. Sure, Nina's physical journey came to an end with the closing credits, but that sense of personal angst she struggled with throughout the entire film vanished with that final fall.
The Personal Problems of the Main Character
If this seems too reductive, consider that this is only one part of the story's real problem, the problem most personal to the Main Character. There are still the other characters in the story to consider who may, or may not – depending on the story's dynamics – be experiencing a similar curse of validation.
While both Luke and Nina experience the same problem of feeling like an outsider, the problems felt by the rest of their respective casts reside in completely different stratospheres. Black Swan finds its characters engaged in backstabbing and psychological manipulations as they climb up the ladder of New York dance. Star Wars explores the dangers of laser blasts and light saber battles. Can't quite call them the same story there. This is why the two films are more like cousins rather than blood brothers. There are parts that are dead-on the same, while others sit at polar ends of the dramatic spectrum.
Validation is not the only problem that can beset a Main Character. In addition to the problems of pursuit described above, you can have problems with feelings (Michael in The Godfather), problems with abilities (Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) and problems with trying to do too much (Remy in Ratatouille). Problems are as varied as the characters who encounter them.
The problem is key to making a story work. Identify the problem facing a Main Character and the corresponding solution that goes with it and the story's structure begins to reveal itself. Only then can one recognize that the troubles of a farmboy in space come remarkably close to those of an aspiring dancer in New York.
This article originally appeared June 30, 2011 on Jim's Story Fanatic website. Hundreds of insightful articles, like this one, can be found in the Article Archives.