Monday, November 29, 2010

Storyteller’s Rulebook #57: ...And The Bad Advice Solution

Last time I talked about the problem with smothering your hero in good advice, especially if you don’t show that such advice is always somewhat dubious. But if you really want your hero to change in a dynamic way, don’t give him good advice until he finally says, “okay!” Give him bad advice until he says, “no!” Doesn’t that sound more dramatic? Don’t believe me? As proof, I present… …my favorite scene of all time!

Heroes needs special skills but they also need flaws, flaws that they can struggle heroically to overcome. This means that it’s always tempting to give a hero, especially the hero of a workplace TV drama, the most struggle-riffic flaw of all: alcoholism. Everyday is a struggle for a recovering alcoholic. Nobody trusts them entirely. They’re surrounded by temptation. Their self-denial, even if it succeeds, can push them to do other bad things in frustration. It’s dramatic gold!

But it can also be a dramatic pothole. The big problem with the recovering alcoholic character is that it’s ultimately an either/or situation. We all know that if they have one more drink, then they’ll have a hundred, so there’s no gray area for the writer to play around in. If you want to keep them straight, your choices are narrow.

It used to be a no-brainer to say that “Hill Street Blues” was the greatest TV drama of all time. There have been a lot of challengers to that throne in the last decade or so, so I won’t start that debate now, but it’s still a contender. Throughout the first season, the chief, played by Daniel J. Travanti, got very tough on an alcoholic cop played by Kiel Martin, insisting that he join AA or quit the force. We followed Martin’s descent until he hit rock bottom. Finally, in the final scene of the first season, he drags himself to an AA meeting. There, he’s surprised to see Travanti himself, who tells his own harrowing story of beating the bottle.

From that point on, we knew that Travanti had the danger of relapse hanging over his head, along with all of the other threats he had to avert. Finally in the fourth season, it all came crashing down. He was under investigation, his career seemed over, his wife had left him… would he finally crack? He sniffs an open bottle, but in desperation he calls his 12-step sponsor, whom he hasn’t spoken to in forever. The man’s secretary tells Travanti that he’s at lunch and then he’ll be out for the day. Travanti insists that it’s an emergency and gets the name of the restaurant...

Let’s pause here and point out that this is going to be a very tricky scene to write. We’ve been building up to this moment for four years. We know that Travanti probably won’t fall off the wagon, because we’ve already been through that storyline more than once with the other cop. But what can the sponsor possibly say that would be powerful enough to turn him around at this point?

Travanti finds the startled man in the restaurant and sits down across from him, begging him for reasons not to drink. They’ve obviously been through a lot together, but rather than speak from the heart, the sponsor can only give Travanti half-hearted platitudes about hanging in there. Travanti notices that his sponsor is panicky and trying to get him to leave as soon as possible. He soon finds out why as the waitress brings the man the scotch he ordered. Travanti is heartbroken to see that he’s fallen off the wagon, but the sponsor doesn’t appreciate his scorn—he launches into a bitter denunciation of the program, saying that it’s not actually a big deal—he’s still in control. It sounds pitiful. That’s all Travanti needs to hear. He leaves so that his former sponsor can have the drink he so badly needs. We know that Travanti’s not going to become a drunk again.

Positive examples and good advice are never as powerful as negative exa mples and bad advice. Saying no is always a stronger dramatic choice than saying yes.


Anonymous said...

Matt, thanks for this excellent post. Here's a great lesson in dramatic storytelling I never would have encountered otherwise. This is exactly why I keep coming back to your blog.

Anonymous said...

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