This is the problem I had last week. I decided that, in order to finally write systematically and definitively about structure, I had to do something I’d always resisted... As I’m sure you noticed, I tend to postulate a rule and then cherry pick examples that prove my point while ignoring every movie that doesn’t. But this time, I wanted to figure out what percentage of well-regarded movies conformed to each step of my proposed structure, which means that I need a fixed, large data set.
For the most part, I generated that set unintentionally the week before when I progressed through seven genres and listed examples from each. For this next project, I decided to simply use the resulting genre-by-genre movie list, after I excluded some movies that seemed like outliers, and added some others that I consider exemplary or their form.
But a funny thing happened. As my chart grew more and more massive, it began to single out and expose various shortcuts I’d taken over the years. For instance, here’s a question that I always fudged: what’s the difference between the hero’s “problem”, “flaw”, “false goal”, and “true goal”? Are they always necessarily four different things, or do pairs of them overlap?
It quickly became obvious that I had always been vague about this, because I didn’t really know the answer myself. Luckily my new data-set made many things clear. Here’s what I discovered:
- The personal problem and the flaw are usually very different things.
- The personal problem is something that the hero is already aware of, (or finally becomes aware quickly of as a result of the social humiliation.) After all, the personal problem is what directly spurs the hero to pursue the opportunity, so it has to already be on the surface.
- The flaw, on the other hand, is usually something hidden that the hero can’t see yet. Only by going on this false quest (“knows what he wants but not what he needs”), does the hero get to know himself (or herself) and discover the underlying flaw.
- The problem should usually be phrased non-judgmentally (“Disrespected”, “over-worked”, etc.). Most of us define our problems externally, not internally, until we’re forced to become self-critical.
- On the other hand, the flaw should always be internal and always be phrased negatively (“sanctimonious”, “disloyal”, etc.). In other words, it should be a true flaw. When someone asks us about our own flaws, we prefer to say, “I’m too nice” or “too much of a perfectionist,” etc. because those aren’t true flaws and we don’t want to change. A hero must have a true flaw that must require change. If you’re writing a movie like Easy Living, for instance, it’s tempting to say that the heroine’s flaw is that she’s “too nice”, which isn’t really a flaw, but it’s better to say “too naïve and deferential”, which is a true flaw that must be changed. Otherwise you’ll go too easy on your characters.
…But here’s a surprisingly common exception:
- There are instances in which the hero has already correctly identified his or her deeper flaw, and knows that this flaw is a big problem. For these heroes, the flaw and the problem are the same, and the hero is already on the right track. (For instance, the heroes of The Apartment, Raising Arizona, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Mean Girls, Bridesmaids, Rear Window, The French Connection, Speed, Iron Man, and Casablanca) So when these heroes reach their spiritual crisis, they don’t say “Oh! So that’s what my real problem is!” They already know it from the start.
- Nevertheless, at the beginning, they’re still stuck in a downward spiral and they don’t know how to fix their flaw/problem. They pursue the opportunity for the right reasons, but they choose the wrong opportunity or go about it in the wrong way. Only as they enter the last quarter of the movie do they finally figure out how to fix their flaw.
- Sometimes, the hero is trying to solve a totally non-existent problem, and the fact that he imagines this “problem” is his flaw. (Sullivan’s Travels)
- Sometimes the hero’s flaw is that he pursues an opportunity that will in no way solve his problem (Rushmore)
Agree? Disagree? Questions? Comments?