Thursday, May 30, 2013

Well Said, Namor!

Where are these posts I keep promising?? Well, I’ve been working on them all week, but, unlike Dr. Kissinger, I’m unwilling to place expediency over sound judgment, so I cannot release them until they’re done.  I’ll have to launch the series on Sunday. (I promise!) In the meantime, here's a too-small-to-do-you-any-good preview of the massive structure chart I've been making all week...just to prove that I have been slaving away for you...

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Specific Structures: Individual Psychological Arcs

This one also incorporates various earlier posts such as this one, this one, and this one.
Last week, we looked at specific character arcs associated with seven different genres.  Together, they covered most movies, but there are additional character arcs within those movies that we can examine.  The point of this series is that most large self-contained stories are focused on one character’s problem, and human nature dictates that people tend to go through a similar set of steps to solve those problems.

Of course, it’s not just storytelling gurus who try to figure out these steps.  Psychologists have been figuring out the steps of problem solving on their end for centuries.  Within each genres, you’ll find heroes whose individual journeys resemble the journeys described by certain psychologists.

Let’s start with the two biggies: Freud and Jung.  Freud focused his work on mental illness and believed that the job of the psychologist was to help the patient solve problems and get out of therapy.  The first precept of Freudian therapists is that, for therapy to be effective, patients “must want to change.”  The Freudian arc is a transformation arc: the hero realizes that he’s self-destructive and transforms himself.

Failure / Overconfident Re-Doubling of Bad Habits / Even Worse Failure Causes Beginnings of Self-Awareness / Success Through Transformation

Freud’s student Jung decided that his mentor was too focused on mental illness as opposed to mental health. Jung studied healthier patients and became convinced that the goal of the psychologist should be to help patients understand and accept themselves, rather than change.  The Jungian arc is an Individuation arc: The hero realizes that he needs to stop trying to change, and rediscover his inborn wisdom.

Discontent / False Success through Denial of Self / Failure Exposes Alienation from Self / Success through Acceptance of Self

I’ve referred to these two arcs as the Han arc and the Luke arc: Han is a rotten guy who thinks he’s great, but he comes to realize that he needs to change.  He finally succeeds by doing something he never would have done before.  Luke is a good person who thinks he’s a failure.  He craves the validation that would come with leaving farm life for flight school, but when he finally becomes a pilot, he finds that it was the skills he learned at home, both practically and spiritually, that allow him to succeed where all the other pilots fail.

Two other psychologists have described self-help journeys that also show up in movies.  Abraham Maslow described the way in which we tend to satisfy our hierarchy of needs one by one.  Characters who have been totally devastated and/or exiled are sometimes forced to follow this arc, such as Jason Bourne or the title characters in The Ballad of Cable Hogue or The Brother From Another Planet:

Shelter / Material Accomplishment / Social Accomplishment / Justice and Peace

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross focused her studies on those experiencing severe grief and found that they tended to follow the same basic steps.  These steps tend to form the arc of movies about grief, in movies like Swayze in Ghost, Carrell in Little Miss Sunshine, or Hutton  Ordinary People.  Also seen on death-filled TV shows like “Lost” and “Battlestar: Galactica”:

Denial / Anger and Bargaining / Depression / Acceptance

Okay, no more delay: Let’s start our big structure walkthrough tommorrow...

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Narrative Breakdown Podcast on Subtext!

Hi everybody!  Well, you might as well just subscribe to the Narrative Breakdown podcast, because James and Cheryl are posting every week at this point and they’re all worth listening to.  This week, I’m back as their co-host for a show about sub-text, based in part on this post.  Give it a listen!

Subscribe on iTunes here...

...Or download it from the website here!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Specific Genre Structures, Part 4: Drama and Tragedy

In college we joked that Shakespeare was just like life: The comedies all end with marriage and the tragedies all begin with one. I certainly haven’t found that be true in life, and even in fiction (even in Shakespeare, in fact) the rule is overstated.

Nevertheless, this does give us a clue as to the nature of Drama: it tends to pick up where comedy leaves off. Comedy ends with the removal of a mask and the beginnings of humility, but that’s where drama tends to begin. Dramas are, more than anything, about growth. The hero’s flaw and the hero’s problem tend to be one and the same: they know that they’re their own worst problem and they’re determined to fix it.

Discontent or Disaster / Humbled Growth / Back-Sliding / Self-Actualization:
  • Kramer vs. Kramer
  • Ordinary People
  • Salvador
  • The Wrestler (self-actualization through death)
  • The Fighter
  • The King’s Speech
Tragedies, unlike every other type of movie, frequently have a midpoint high-point, rather than a midpoint disaster. Tragedies usually feature anti-heroes who are somewhat loathsome, but sometimes they feature heroes who are too good to live, like Serpico or Jack in Titanic.

Discontent / Rising / Strained to Breaking Point / Death of Body, Career, or Soul:
  • Citizen Kane
  • The Godfather
  • Downhill Racer
  • Serpico
  • Dog Day Afternoon
  • Donnie Brasco (Surprisingly)
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • American Beauty
  • Titanic
  • The Black Swan
  • There Will Be Blood
Finally, commenter Beth asked earlier this week if I would cover the genre of romance, but as far as I can tell, there is no such genre. Every romance, it seems to me, is merely the romantic version of some other genre, usually comedy or tragedy. Am I wrong? Is there a romance arc?

Next week, we’ll have one more post before we start go through the structure list, on different psychological arcs that exist alongside these.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Specific Genre Structures, Part 3: Horror

Yesterday, we looked at thriller, mystery/conspiracy, and action movies. The horror movie has much in common with all three, but it’s fundamentally different. In horror, the audience has less identification with the hero than in any other type of story.

In action and conspiracy movies, we identify with the hero the whole time. Even when the heroes are kicking themselves in the third quarter for being overconfident in the second quarter, we fully identify, since we shared their adrenaline rush, and we, too, failed to see the disaster coming.

Thrillers are trickier. We share the thrill of transgression in the second quarter, but we do see the disaster coming, and we withhold some of our sympathy even then. In the third quarter, when the sinning hero suffers consequences, we switch to a judgmental attitude and look down on the same transgressions that we just vicariously enjoyed.

In horror, we always empathize with the heroes, in that we share their fear, but we rarely sympathize, because their suffering is usually somehow their fault. The transgression usually happens much earlier, in the first quarter or before the movie starts, and we take no joy from it. Instead, our joy comes from a mix of sharing the heroes’ fear and sharing the evil force’s desire to punish them. As the advantage keeps shifting between the two sides, we win either way.

Transgression / Denial and Dread of Unseen Consequences / Horror at Visible Consequences / Triumph or Succumb:
  • Frankenstein (transgression = creating life)
  • King Kong (transgression = fetishization of the exotic)
  • Rosemary’s Baby (punished for the ambition of her husband)
  • Halloween (Laurie is punished for the sexual transgressions of her friends)
  • Alien (transgression = defending company)
  • The Shining (transgression = drinking and abusing child, happened before movie)
  • Scream (transgression = lack of desensitization to horror combined with old-fashioned teen horniness)
Tellingly, even in movies where we don’t see any transgression, we’re so hard-wired to blame the victims that we spend the whole movie trying to figure out what the heroes might have done to deserve this, because they must have done something. You can see the audience dynamic in such movies as…
  • The Birds (Critics have twisted themselves into knots trying to figure out why the opening scenes justify the attack. I think Hitch’s true point is that people will always blame themselves for nature’s fury, even when they shouldn’t.)
  • Night of the Living Dead (“What did humanity do to deserve this?” is the implied question, which is ironically answered by the final scene)
  • The Exorcist (The priests keep asking why the devil would choose this girl)
  • Saw (Victims try to figure out what they did wrong)
  • 28 Days Later (Again, “What did we do to deserve this?” is asked many times)
Tomorrow: Drama and Tragedy

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Specific Genre Structure, Part 2: Thriller, Conspiracy and Action

These three genres can seem almost interchangeable, and they tended to share the same shelf space at video stores, back when those existed, but their underlying structures are surprisingly different.

The first surprise is that thrillers have almost the same underlying structure as comedies. As with Comedy, classical thrillers tend to focus on a hero who creates his own problem by transgressing society’s norms, creating this very similar quartet: Discontent / Transgression / Consequences / Victory or Defeat
  • Double Indemnity
  • Rear Window
  • Strangers on a Train (punished for a transgression he only considered)
  • Bonnie and Clyde (surprisingly)
  • Body Heat
  • Blood Simple
  • Blue Velvet
  • Fatal Attraction
  • Silence of the Lambs (Sort of: transgression = sharing with Lecter / consequences = Lecter’s escape. Actually, this movie proves to be surprisingly slippery, and could be squeezed into any of these three categories)
But that definition leaves out movies that are driven by conspiracies, so we have to give them their own category. These movies feature little or no transgression by the hero, and focus on exterior antagonism. The arc is: Injustice / Overconfident Investigative Crusade / Betrayals / Revelation
  • Maltese Falcon
  • Manchurian Candidate
  • Chinatown
  • All the President’s Men
  • L. A. Confidential
  • Crimson Tide (surprisingly, since it feels more like thriller or action)
What about action movies? Surprisingly, they’re closer to Mystery/Conspiracy movies than they are to thrillers, since both are focused on external problems rather than personal flaws. The arc is: Injustice / Kicking Ass Overconfidently / Getting Ass Kicked / Victory or Defeat
  • Goldfinger
  • The Great Escape
  • The French Connection
  • Star Wars
  • Raiders of the Lost Ark
  • Die Hard
  • Speed
  • Batman Begins
Once again, many movies end up in very different categories than I thought they would:
  • Thor feels like straight-up action and not at all like a thriller, but it’s structured like the latter than the former: It’s focused not on the external threat but on the hero’s folly and culpability in all that follows. The movie is more critical of Thor than Loki.
  • Donnie Brasco feels like a thriller, but doesn’t fit into any of these categories. Instead, it charts like a tragedy, which is a structure we’ll look at later in this series.
The final surprise: Certain movies (each of which were adapted from several years worth of stories in another medium), combined more than one of these arcs, but in each case, they didn’t overlap—One arc wraps up and then the other begins immediately thereafter:
  • The Fugitive (compressed from a four-year TV epic) crams an entire action arc into its first 40 minutes, then fits a mystery arc into the remaining 80 minutes.
  • Spider-Man (covering the first ten years of the comic) zips through a thriller arc, in which the power goes to Peter’s head and he suffers the consequences, then it wraps that up and devotes the rest of the movie to an action arc, as he deals with the external threat of the Green Goblin
  • Iron Man (covering 20 years of the comic) does the opposite: first we have an action arc, dealing with the external threat of the warlord, then a thriller arc, as Tony comes home and lets his powers get to his head, and deals with the consequences at the end.
Tomorrow, something similar and yet very different: Horror

Monday, May 20, 2013

Specific Genre Structures, Part 1: Comedy

Just to review, the general arc of classical structure, as I identify it, can be boiled down to four quarters separated by three turning points:
  1. First quarter: Longstanding problem becomes acute through a humiliation and a new opportunity to solve that problem is identified.
  2. ¼ point: Hero commits to the opportunity.
  3. Second quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the easy way.
  4. Midpoint: Disaster and loss of safe space
  5. Third quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the hard way.
  6. ¾ point: Spiritual crisis
  7. Final quarter: Wiser hero solves or succumbs to problem.
For now, let’s just focus on the four quarters. The essential quartet of Problem / Easy Way / Hard Way / Resolution is vague enough to apply to just about any story about a large problem, but eventually you get tired of having to squint all the time. When we opened our eyes all the way and tested this structure against some actual movies, we found that different genres tended to have very different takes on that quartet. This week, we’ll look at hour several different genres tend to define those four quarters.

Surprisingly, although there are many profoundly different subgenres of comedy, I was able to identify on more-specific quartet that applied to almost all of them:

Discontent / Transgression with Mask / Deal with Consequences / Growth Without Mask:
  • Easy Living (mask = false identity that is thrust upon her)
  • The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday (mask = pretend to no longer to be in love)
  • Sullivan’s Travels (mask = phony poverty)
  • Some Like It Hot (mask = drag)
  • The Apartment (transgression has already begun, then escalates, mask is unwanted but adopted to get ahead at work and explain strange goings on to his neighbor)
  • The Producers (mask = scam)
  • Breaking Away (mask = Italian accent)
  • Risky Business (mask = sunglasses)
  • Tootsie (mask = drag)
  • Raising Arizona (literally with and without masks)
  • Swingers (mask = phony pick-up persona)
  • Rushmore (he’s been wearing the mask for years, but now it escalates)
  • Wedding Crashers (mask = fake identities)
  • The 40 Year Old Virgin (mask = fake confidence)
  • Juno (first transgression has already happened, second transgression happens late)
  • Superbad (mask = fake ID)
  • Mean Girls (mask = fake personality)
  • The Hangover (transgressions not seen, revealed as part of lengthened consequences section)
Even the exceptions I identified were slight:
  • In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant has no mask but it doesn’t matter because Hepburn insists on treating him as something he isn’t, so he gets the same benefit, in that he gets to flee his responsibilities for a time.
  • I was surprised that Bridesmaids, which feels like a very classical comedy, is the most atypical of the comedies I looked at, since our hero engages in almost no transgression, but merely attempts to be dutiful. She does wear a mask, however, to the extent that she pretends not to be broke and not to be horribly depressed about friend’s wedding and life in general.
Though, as we’ll see throughout the series, some movies end up jumping into other categories altogether:
  • Dr. Strangelove didn’t fit at all, but I think that that’s because it’s a conspiracy movie that’s played as a comedy and thus fits the “mystery” arc that we’ll look at tomorrow. (It was adapted from a dead serious novel)
  • Annie Hall, likewise, doesn’t fit, because it’s really a drama arc played for laughs.
Tomorrow: Thriller, Action and Mystery

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How to Structure a Story Around a Big Problem, Introduction

Okay folks, we’ve tried this before:
  • First I spent most of The Hero Project rethinking the conventional wisdom on structure.
  • Then I conducted The Great Guru Showdown, where I pitted previous structure gurus against each other.
  • Then I did a quick rundown of How to Structure a Movie, but I didn’t go into much detail about each step.
  • Then I did a week on the idea that “inciting incident” wasn’t a very useful concept, so it should be replaced by three ideas: Problem-Opportunity-Conflict.
Now we’re back to make more sense of it all.  First of all, as you can see, I’ve changed the title.  For the purposes of the upcoming book, I’ve been expanding my definitions to apply to different storytelling media, but I also want to make it clear that there’s lots of stories that these steps don’t apply to, such as long-form TV or comic book serials, and also movies with atypical ambitions.

I don’t want to imply that beloved movies like Weekend or Slacker or Pulp Fiction are doing anything wrong simply because they’re not about the solving of a large problem.  This structure doesn’t describe some sort of “inherent nature of celluloid”, it merely describes the natural progress that most humans go through when we try to solve a large problem, which is why, if you’re writing that kind of story, in whatever media, you should probably hit most of these steps in roughly this order.

In this series, we’re going to walk through the steps of the most common structure, but that will actually start next week.  First we’re going to spend a week expanding my previous thoughts about specific genre structures.  Over the course of the Checklist Road Tests, it seemed that the concept of “the promise of the premise” was unclear, partially because I borrowed it from Blake Snyder.

It emerged that this could mean very different things depending on the genre.  In some genres, such as comedy and thrillers the audience and the hero are having fun together, but we also saw that in horror movies such as Alien, the audience is having fun because the heroes are suffering.  So this week we’ll tackle…
  • Mon: Comedy
  • Tues: Thriller, Action, Mystery
  • Wed: Horror
  • Thurs: Drama, Tragedy 
Let’s get to it!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

What I Wish I'd Heard at Graduation, Addendum: Don't Blow It

To paraphrase Rick’s description of Renault in Casablanca, filmmaking is like any other job, only moreso.  Did you choose this job because you don’t want to have a boss?  Well I have bad news for you, you won’t have one boss, you’ll have dozens, and many of them will be ten times as arrogant, exploitative and contemptuous as the worst boss you’ve ever had.

Above all else, beware of this: Hollywood producers, agents, stars, directors, etc., are some of the most thin-skinned people in the world.  On those lucky occasions that one of them offers you an opportunity, it’s ridiculously easy to blow it.  They have a lot of unspoken rules, and it’s not hard to break one, which will be the last you ever hear from them. The sense of entitlement these people have is overwhelming.

Remember, these people are constantly pestered by job-hopefuls who have memorized everything about them and are desperate to be part of their world.  On one level they find these people really annoying and try to avoid them, but on the other hand, they also come to take them for granted…they have unconsciously concluded that there must be a good reason why all these people are obsessed with them.

Inevitably, they internalize the assumption that everybody out there on the street knows everything about them, including their tastes and preferences, their contact info, where they hang out, etc, which helps explain why power-people are so bizarrely uncommunicative.  It takes a Herculean effort to get them to confirm the day, date, time, place and address of a meet-up.  If they mention the name of a restaurant to meet, you’re just supposed to know where that is, and if there’s more than one location, you’re supposed to be able to guess which one they prefer.  If you don’t, you’ll have to badger their assistant to get that information, and the assistant will be even more contemptuous.  They know everything about their boss, so why don’t you??

And by the way, the super-hip places they want to meet invariably have no street signs whatsoever—restaurants without signs, private clubs without signs, even hotels without signs.  They don’t even notice that these elite places are designed to be completely invisible from the street and it would never occur them that this might not be the best place to meet someone for the first time.  You’ve been there before, right?  Everybody goes there.

Most of all, these people assume that everybody will be agog when hearing their voice on the phone.  They’ve gotten so used to hushed awe that anything else seems downright contemptuous.  The last three people they spoke to were in awe of them, so who the hell are you to act differently?

The trick is to always be deferential, but never dazzled.  Profoundly respect their power and their peculiarities, but don’t surrender your self-respect. Yes, you should be grateful these power-people are giving you some of their genuinely valuable time, but keep looking for the opportunity to quietly prove you’re good enough to be there.  The trick is to prove your excellence in a way that doesn’t even remotely smell like insolence.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

What I Wish I’d Heard at Graduation, Addendum: You Sometime Have to Work on Projects You Hate (And it Might Be “Your” Project)

In the comments on this post, we debated about whether it ever makes sense to work on projects you hate.  Ultimately, I would say that my answer is a sad yes, in some bad situations.

No, you probably should knock yourself out trying to get hired for an opening writing assignment you hate, for several reasons:
  • It’ll be hard to crack the story if you don’t have a healthy respect for it.
  • You’ll be unlikely to get the job because they’ll detect your lack of enthusiasm.
  • You don’t want to be miserable while you’re writing it, because you’ll get bogged down over and over.
But you do have to at least be able to write projects you hate.  Why?  Because of this very unfortunate fact: in the years between the sale and the finished movie, every script you sell will at some point become a project you hate, even if only for a while.

Simon Kinberg has seemingly spent his whole career living the dream.  He sold his film school thesis screenplay Mr. and Mrs. Smith to Hollywood, then made millions rewriting other people’s projects while his own script attracted every big name in town.  (For a long time, it was supposed to star Will Smith and Nicole Kidman!)

Even more impressive, by the time the finished movie came out, he was still the only listed screenwriter, which is almost unheard of.  Now, in point of fact, he had been fired several times, and other writers had re-written it a dozen different ways, but each time the studio changed their minds and reverted back to his latest version.

As hard as that was to take, it was even worse when he didn’t get fired, because each new director demanded he re-write his script to fit their vision, even when he wildly disagreed with their take.

One of the most acclaimed directors in town decided that the story should be a metaphor for domestic violence, and the spies should keep sending each other to the emergency room where they could make mirthless jokes about how the other ran into a doorknob.  It turned Kinberg’s stomach to write these scenes, but he did it anyway, because, by this point, he knew that this director would inevitably pass and he would soon be working for someone else, and he just wanted to stay attached until that happened.  In the end, he was glad he did.

This is a job.  Like any other job, you do better work when you believe in what you do, but you can’t demand the right to be gung ho about every assignment every day.  Sometimes, you just have to keep your head down, do it their way, and trust that, somehow, everything will work out alright.

(...But whatever you do, don’t say, “Okay then, I’ll write it in a way that shows them how bad their idea is.”  Inevitably, one of two things will happen:
  • They’ll instantly detect that you tanked it, then fire and bad-mouth you.
  • Or, even worse, they’ll love your purposely-bad version, and you’ll be stuck with it.
Instead, you really have to try your best to make their bad idea work.  Ironically, if they can tell that you really tried, they’ll be far more like to admit that their version just doesn't work.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #187: Own It (But Don’t Let It Own You)

We finally got around to watching Whale Rider the other day, which was great, and one thought I had while watching it was how much the New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro and novelist Witi Ihimaera owned the material.  They were telling their land’s story, one that no outsider had.  The emotions were universal, but, to a non-Maori audience, all of the details were wonderfully exotic and unique.  There is real power in that authenticity.

I made a fundamental mistake when pitching my Alan Turing script around town.  They would all ask me how I found this story and I gave the wrong answer: “I randomly ran across it in a book, liked it, read a bunch more books, and decided to write it.”  They would look a little uncomfortable and ask me what my connection to the material was, and I would blithely blabber, “Funny you should ask: absolutely none!  He’s a gay British mathematician, and I’m not any of those things!”  I didn’t realize that I was killing my sale.

Instead, when you’re pitching, you need to play up your authenticity, establish your connection to the material.   Even if you don’t “own” any source material involved, you have to own it.  Be necessary.  Prove that you’re the one writer who is perfect for this material.  Assure them that, if they had been the one to have this idea, and they could have hired any writer in the world to write it, you’re the writer they would have hired. 

After all, as soon as they buy it from you, it is their idea, in every sense of the word, and you’re their employee.  You don’t want them to suddenly wonder, “Why did I hire this guy?”

But be aware that there’s a tipping point at which your connection to the material stops being an asset and starts being a liability.  It’s one thing to say, “I’m the perfect guy to write this, because I’m a gay British mathematician myself” (in fact, Turing’s most in-depth biographer was all three), but the fear is that you’ll then say, “And I’m gonna tell the real story, instead of all that phony Hollywood crap!”  Suddenly, all of the enthusiasm will drain out of producers’ faces. 

You have to own it without letting it own you.  You have to have a deep reservoir of unique real-world knowledge, but then you have use it or discard it as necessary in the service of a great story.  

Look at “The Americans”: creator Joe Weisberg sold that show based on his own experience as a CIA officer, and indeed the show offers many real-world aspects of spy work that you rarely see onscreen, such as the recruiting and handling of long-term assets, but it also exaggerates and re-writes the facts at will. The details are authentic, but the story is pure fiction. 
In this excellent AV Club interview, Weisberg makes it clear that the spy stuff was always restricted to being a metaphor for the family stuff, and never the other way around.  He uses all of his spy knowledge, but he doesn’t let it take over the show. In the end, he’s not even writing about spies, he’s just using his authentic tradecraft knowledge as a source of unique details to enrich a universal story of family strife. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Storyteller’s Rulebook #186: It’s Your Job To Attract Great Talent

I didn’t need to see the remake of Total Recall to know it was bad.  All I had to do was look at the cast.  Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel were on nobody’s A-List in 2012.  The producers probably wanted Brad and Angelina, until they read the script and passed on it.

At least Farrell has talent, despite being box-office poison, but Biel has now made dozens of movies without ever having a single hit, or a single good review of her performances in those movies, as far as I know.  She’s a place-holder, not an asset. Her presence tells you that every bankable and/or talented actress in town turned down the part. There’s probably a good reason for that.

It’s tempting to say, “They ruined my script with bad actors!”  But actually, you ruined your movie with bad actors.  You wrote a script that was good enough to attract a producer and director, but not good enough to attract excellent onscreen talent.  If Jessica Biel is in your movie, then you wrote it wrong.

When you revise, you need to ask yourself: Do each of the top five parts have satisfying and original character arcs?  Of course, for the fifth-billed character, it might be a very lightly-sketched arc, but a little goes a long way. Likewise for every scene: Is that going to be a fully-engaged day on set for each actor?  Or are they going to be rolling their eyes and sleep-walking through it?  Is this something they’ve already done before in other movies, or is it something that nobody has done before in any movie.

It’s okay to introduce each character from the hero’s point of view, and even to sacrifice their likability to the hero’s in the early scenes, but you should quickly elevate several of them to the status of fully-compelling characters, and eventually you should let each have his or her own moment in the sun.

For as many parts as possible, write dialogue they’ll be excited to say, scenes that activate their imaginations, and parts they’ve always wanted to play.  You’ll have your pick of the best talent in town.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

How to Build a Scene, Addendum: Do You Have a Surface Conflict and a Suppressed Conflict?

As I’ve been running movies through the checklist, and your helpful suggestions, certain questions seem to me to be less than useful.  I’ve stated before that one of my goals is to never ask a question that always gets a “yes” (This is one reason I don’t like the terminology “inciting incident”, because it’s impossible to write a story that doesn’t have one, in one form or another.)  Writers seek out these lists because they need something proscriptive, not merely descriptive.  Every rule needs to be breakable.

One question that hasn’t seemed very useful on the checklist so far is under “How to Build a Scene”: “Do they confront each other through sub-text moreso than through text?”  I generally answer “yes”, but the question is too vague to demand more explanation. Instead, let’s switch to this: “Do you have a surface conflict and an suppressed conflict?”  This forces the writer to identify both, which will help identify which one might be missing.

Now let’s look back at the eight scenes we’ve examined so far and identify the surface conflict / suppressed conflict.
  • Bridesmaids: Over whether or not she’ll get a ticket / Over whether they should date, why she’s a failure.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Over filling out the questionnaire / Over her desire to catch Buffalo Bill, over his desire to dissect her and to escape.
  • Donnie Brasco: Over who tipped off Sonny Black / Over their friendship, over Donnie’s splintering loyalties.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Over how the students should kill this new type of dragon / Over crushes, over how to befriend the Night Fury.
  • Alien: Over whether or not to kill the Alien / Over Ash’s true motives.
  • The Shining: Over the stain, over whether or not he’s seen the butler before / Over the nature of the house, over whether or not he should kill his family
  • Casablanca: Over whether Rick will take custody of the letters / Over who killed the couriers, who Rick really is, whether Ugarte is worthy of respect
  • In a Lonely Place: Over lots of little things / Over whether or not Laurel will leave, whether or not any of them can trust Dix anymore.
So, in each case, the answer is “yes”, but I think we’ve uncovered a lot more useful information, and a more useful thing to consider in advance when crafting a scene from scratch.

In each of these cases, it would have been so much easier for the writer to simply have the characters walk right up to each other and confront each other about what’s really bothering them.  Such scenes are tempting, because they’re big, bold, packed with attitude and full of conflict.  But they ring false, and lack multiple layers, so they’re flat.

People avoid conflict, and use tricks and traps to get what they want.  It’s usually in the best interest of both parties to keep the suppressed conflict suppressed, and stay focused on the surface conflict.  It spares both parties pain, allows each to keep his or her own goals hidden, and gives each an excuse to ignore the other’s ploy to force them to do something they don’t want to do.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Your Help Needed!

So now that you’ve seen me run through the checklist several times, I have some questions for you:
  • Were there any surprises in the movies I evaluated?  Did I evaluate them fairly? 
  • Do all of the questions make sense to you? 
  • Do any of the questions seem useless? Superfluous? Redundant? 
  • Are there any that you fear would do more harm than good? 
  • Are there any concepts that I’ve talked about on this blog that aren’t on the checklist but should be? 
  • In general, is the list too long? Too short? 
  • Is the phrasing clear or confusing? 
  • Most importantly, would you use this checklist as-is? Would you skip over any questions or sections? 
Thanks so much!

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Straying From the Party Line: Unclear Goals and Imagery in In a Lonely Place

There seem to be two huge problems here…
  • Deviation #1: The hero’s goals aren’t clear and he’s not the person working the hardest to solve the problem.
  • The Potential Problem: Like Casablanca, Bogart once again plays his cards close to the chest, coyly prevaricating about what his character’s goals are. Does he want this adaptation job or not? Does he just want quick cash or is he determined to make art? Does he want to clear his name or does he actually want to implicate himself (out of a perverse impulse for self-destruction)? We never know for sure. And of course we aren’t sure until the end whether or not he killed one of our characters! 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes. Like The Shining (also about a potentially-homicidal author), this movie pulls off a tricky relay-race. Dix is only occasionally interested in solving his own problem, and when he loses interest, Laurel and his detective friend Frank take up the slack, trying to solve his problems for him (Laurel tries to get Dix to face his anger issues, Frank tries to clear Dix’s name). Writer Andrew Solt and director Nicholas Ray deftly bounce our identification back and forth between Dix and Laurel, symbolizing her vacillating loyalty and his faltering sense of self-preservation. 
But wait, here’s another problem:
  • Deviation #2: The movie doesn’t show us any images we haven’t seen before and doesn’t satisfy the urges that get people to buy and recommend this kind of movie. 
  •  The Potential Problem: This movie has never been as well-known as it ought to be. This might be because, like Donnie Brasco, it has no unique imagery with which to promote it. Just look at their DVD covers--Would you rent either of these movies if you knew nothing about them?
    And even when people see this, they don’t know quite how to describe it. It’s almost perversely frustrating to noir fans: we don’t see the crime, don’t see the arrest, don’t hear the confession, don’t get a physical showdown between Dix and Laurel… It’s sort of an anti-noir. 
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes and no. It’s hard to blame the movie for its failure to satisfy the urges or noir or thriller fans, since that denial supports the theme: this is a feminist movie (albeit not as much as Dorothy Hughes’s excellent but very different novel, in which Dix turns out to be very, very guilty) It indicts the viewers for our desire to see independent desirable women disempowered and chopped up. The movie intentionally frustrates us by denying those urges in order to make us confront and question those urges. The downside is that the movie is hard to market, and it’s never achieved the household-name status it deserves, alongside The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca as one of Bogart’s greatest movies.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The Ultimate Story Checklist: In A Lonely Place

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Hotheaded screenwriter Dix Steele hires a hat-check girl to read a book for him, then sends her home just before she gets killed. His only alibi is his neighbor Laurel Grey, who saw him around that time but isn’t sure about the timeline. Dix begins a romance with Laurel, but she begins to have her doubts about his innocence.
PART #1: CONCEPT 16/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An angry screenwriter is accused of murder, then falls in love with the beautiful woman who provided his alibi, but she’s not sure he’s really innocent.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 Yes, a writer of crime stories is caught up in one.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
 Yes, the plot all happens offscreen, all we see are the emotional reactions to it.
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
 Yes, Dix.
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes. We zip through a lot of time.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 Yes, a romance between a man and the stranger that alibis him.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 Yes, everyone, to varying degrees.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Yes, greatest hope: return of love and career passion, greatest fear: his anger goes out of control, ironic answer: he asks “what happens in the book?” then he lives it.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
 Yes, very.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 Yes, he thinks he needs his anger to survive and to write well.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 No. His friends care more about helping him, both externally and internally, than he does himself.  This should kill the movie but it doesn’t.  This is very rare: a compelling story about refusing to help yourself.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 Transform the situation: he pushes Laurel too far and out of his life.  Transform the hero: “I lived a while while she loved me, I died when she left me.”
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 No.  No crimes are committed onscreen, there is no climactic act of violence, the crime is also solved offscreen, and the perpetrator is someone we don’t know.
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 No.  That’s a problem.  It has no noir imagery.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Not really, but the level of darkness Bogart taps into must have been shocking at the time.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 Sort of: by that point we’re half convinced that he did it, but he didn’t.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 Yes, he’s funny with the kids, kind to the drunk.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
 Yes.  He is problems are defined by almost getting in that fight, not by what we then find out about his stalled out career.
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 Yes, talented misanthrope.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 Somewhat, he’s a better person than he seems to be, since he stands up for the drunk and secretly sends flowers to dead girl.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 Yes, mock-film noir, based on his screenwriting career.
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Yes, sarcasm
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Yes, encourages them to talk, lets them hang themselves, then shoots them down swiftly and brutally.  Or he just punches them.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 No, it’s complex and contradictory: Does he want the Althea Bruce job or not?  Does he want to write something for quick money or something meaningful?  Is he looking for love?  For sex?  Does he have a death wish? A desire to be imprisoned?  Does he want to deal with his anger issues or not?  Unlike most heroes, he is a man or dark, murky, contradictory impulses.  And yet, we love him and find him utterly compelling.  He’s an exception to the rule.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 Yes: “She’s right, I am nobody.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Yes, write a quickie picture for some money.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: that he’s wasted his life.  Hidden: that he’ll kill somebody.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Yes, very much so.  Bogart was great at acting tough and then totally wilting.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 Yes, his hostility cannot be controlled.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 Yes, he’s brutally honest and a great writer.
Is the hero curious?
 No.  He refuses to pay attention to key facts he needs to hear. 
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 No.  Others have to take care of him.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Yes: One day I’ll write something great, I won’t be insulted, I must never show my real emotions.
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 Yes, only he is kind to the drunk, only he speaks his mind.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Very much so, he has a razor-sharp rapier wit
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s on his way to meeting about a job.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 Yes, he’s his own boss.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 Yes. “It was his story against mine…Of course, I told my story better.”  “I’ve had a lot of experience in matters of this kind, I’ve killed a lot of people…in pictures.”
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 17/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 No, in this story, he is already aware of his internal flaw, which is the same as his longstanding personal problem: his bad anger management. 
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 Yes, he almost gets in a fight in the street, then his few friends chew him out for almost getting in another fight at his favorite restaurant.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 In a roundabout way: a girl’s death brings his old cop friend and a new girlfriend into his life, both of whom will offer him compassion while challenging him on his anger issues.
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Yes, he hesitates about pursuing Laurel.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Indirectly: He commits to pursuing the girl, and she commits to solving his problems for him.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Yes, Laurel’s masseuse is opposed to the relationship, his cop buddy’s boss and wife both distrust Dix.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Yes, he blows off the murder accusation and his early relationship is idyllic.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Yes, he thinks he’s solved all of his personal problems and cleared his name.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 Yes, at the beach picnic, Dix realizes that his girl and his friend are conspiring against him.  As a result, he almost murders another driver. Neither relationship is ever the same.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 No.  He remains in denial until almost the end.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
 Yes, finds out cop has stood by him, but Laurel is unwilling to.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 Yes. His marriage proposal creates a crisis.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
 Yes, but not until it’s too late.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Yes, but only at the very end when he realizes that his fiancĂ© is leaving him.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 Yes: “I lived a few weeks while she loved me.”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 No.  The movie is over.  He is destroyed.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 Yes, he proposes marriage, forcing her hand.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 Yes, he discovers that she is leaving him.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Almost, if they had all come together at the engagement dinner, things might have worked out, but the last piece of the puzzle doesn’t arrive until they’re alone, when things are too late.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 Yes, after he is cleared, the real internal crisis comes.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 Yes, he watches her walk away and declares himself dead inside.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 20/20 (Laurel has made secret plans to leave town, but Dix makes her go to his favorite restaurant to celebrate their engagement with his agent, his alcoholic friend, and others)
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Yes, we know that she’s planned her escape, and that he has no idea.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Yes, we begin when the last person arrives.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Yes, his ex walks in, he’s been warned there about his behavior before, etc.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Laurel has something better to do but is forced to stay.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Yes, the drunk friend just adds a note of pathos and humor.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Yes, we know that there’s a danger that various people might call. We know that Laurel has tickets out of town.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Very much so.  Dix finally loses it, punches out his agent, etc.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We’re split, we can’t decide if we want her to get away or want him to win her back
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Yes, she wants to leave him and he wants to get married.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Yes, surface: force everybody to celebrate, suppressed: force everybody to admit that they’re betraying him.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Yes. The discussion of the screenplay parallels the other tensions.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Yes.  Laurel is lying that she still loves Dix, the agent lies about his feelings about the script.  Dix is in denial about his suspicion that Laurel is about to flee.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Dix traps his agent, demands to hear the phone call, Dix’s ex tries to ruin the marriage.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Just a little.  Mostly, they’re at the table, until Dix punches his agent.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Yes, the ominous phone is handed around.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 Yes, Dix nails them all, one by one, getting them all to admit things they don’t want to.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 Yes, the celebration ruins everything.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: will the agent like the script?  Will the studio?  Will Laurel get away? New: why are the police calling?  Where has Laurel gone?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Yes, where is he going?
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Very much so.  We’re now terrified about what might happen in the next scene.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 Very much so.  The novel was written by a woman from Laurel’s point of view and the screenplay is written by a man from Dix’s point of view, but it retains a tremendous amount of empathy towards Laurel, and everyone else.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
 Very much so.
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 For the most part.  Laurel decides to save Dix, but in a believable way: she never sacrifices her own wants and needs to his.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 Very much so.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Dix more than Laurel, but yes.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Yes, in many ways. For example: Dix’s monologue about how the breakfast scene is the ideal love scene, not suspecting that she no longer loves him, shows how the false omniscience of the screenwriter has blinded him to reality.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Cop friend: the war, hat check girl: faux-Variety-speak., Default personality trait: Laurel: cool, sexy and flinty, his cop friend: affable, agent: conciliatory, falsely positive, Argument strategy: The police chief: lets you hang yourself.  Laurel, lets you talk then calmly restates her original opinion.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
 Very much so.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
 There are a fair number of commas.  It’s a fairly writer-ly screenplay, which makes sense.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
 Dix is a writer, so he can get away with it.  She refuses to mirror his flowery language.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 Everybody’s 3-dimentionsal.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
They never really understand each other.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 Yes, we don’t find out anything about his past until his present is compelling.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Yes, the final confrontation.
PART #6: TONE 7/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 No, it’s halfway between film noir and neo-gothic romance and doesn’t quite satisfy either.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Yes, the Hollywood movie.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 No, it doesn’t satisfy any of them, but that’s the point: this is a feminist film (albeit much less so than the book) that wants us to be aware of and worried about our urges to see violent pay-offs.  It works brilliantly.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 Yes, witty cynicism with a strong undercurrent of despair and violence. Established by the contrast of the almost-fight in the street followed by his gentle witty interaction with the kids, where he accepts their conclusion that he’s a nobody.
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Yes, did Dix kill her?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 No, and the movie suffers for it.  We’re never quite sure of what type of movie it is, and where it’s going.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Yes, Laurel is afraid she’ll be killed like the girl, Dix is afraid he’ll end up like the old drunk.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 Yes, the script uses metacommentary, the script Dix is working on keeps predicting what will happen next in his life in ironic ways. Solt keeps our focus off the investigation and on the relationship.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 Yes, can’t write and then he can, can’t answer the phone, then he can.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Yes, we find out that Dix didn’t kill her.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Sacrificing for love vs. self protection. 
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 Yes: “Why does he have to be like this?”  “Would you want him any other way?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Somewhat.  There aren’t a lot of tough dilemmas for Dix, just for those who have to decide whether or not to trust him.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 Yes. This is a much scarier vision of humorous misanthropy than the charming version Bill Murray tends to play.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Yes, this is clearly a painfully real portrait of Solt’s own world.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 Yes, postwar domestic violence and depression loom large: “Dix hasn’t been this good since before the war.”
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Yes, the details of the book, etc.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 No, not really. The book, maybe. Briefly with the grapefruit knife, and the phone.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Yes, self protection is better than sacrificing for love, but it’s a painful choice.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Yes, he clears his name but loses the girl anyway.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Yes, we never find out how and why the murder happened.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 He synthesizes it in a pat way, but because we saw him coin that phrase before, we suspect that he is only pretending to feel the impact, or that he’s summoned up so many canned feelings for Hollywood that he can’t summon up any raw, authentic feelings anymore.
Final Score: 105 out of 122