Tuesday, June 11, 2013

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

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


j.s. said...

The last time I saw HIGH NOON, just a few months ago, the film completely lost me at this point. I assume your still is of Cooper walking toward the church service where he'll ask all of the town's men to grab their guns and back him up? And they're all ready to, until suddenly they aren't. Why? Mostly because if they did what they seem most naturally inclined to do, then there would be no movie. I know Howard Hawks hated this film because he thought the sheriff never should have had the gall to ask regular civilians for help, that it was unmanly and unprofessional. But one could just as easily dislike it because the civilians opt not to help him for no good reason.

Paul Clarke said...

This is definitely the part of a script that traditional structural paradigms get wrong. They just gloss over it. There'll be 5 or more events that need to take place in the opening 30 pages, then little or nothing over the next 30.

The idea of a midpoint was a good development. But it doesn't go far enough. You can't go 30 pages without some sort of story development. I think 15 should be the max (I guess that's where the 8 sequence structure comes from). So there needs to be a revelation, irreversible change to the story world, change of allegiance, something. Otherwise you'll bore the audience.

And I totally agree that knowing the list of tasks ahead of time ruins the story. We should have a general idea where the overall story is heading, but only be able to see as far as the next obstacle. Then we round the corner, boom, more trouble. An example that comes to mind is Scott Pilgram. It didn't work for me because we know he has to battle the 7 ex's, so I found myself bored waiting for the 7th.

On a side note, will there be an article on the exceptions/anomalies that were highlighted in the chart? I have a couple of ideas on why some of them work but don't want to interrupt the flow of articles.

Matt Bird said...

I'm trying to cover those as I go through each step under the heading of "Notable Exceptions (But Don't Try This At Home)", although, as with the rest of the chart, I won't be able to examine every one.