Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 12: Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • This is universally-accepted advice and for good reason.  The number one mistake first time writers make is to have an overly-passive protagonist.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Any recovering addict will tell you that once you stop sabotaging yourself, you still have a long, long way to go to get your life back on track.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Everybody hates a lucky man.  The solution shouldn’t land in the hero’s lap, and it shouldn’t be within easy grasp.  Even at this late point in the story, once the hero has a corrected philosophy, there should still be a long way to go and a short time to get there.
  • This the latest possible moment for the hero to turn proactive: it’s also fine for the hero to become totally proactive starting at step five, or any point in between.
Examples of Proactive Pursuit of the True Goal:
  • Mike in Swingers finally goes out and meets a new girl.
  • Cady in Mean Girls begins to make amends and joins the mathletes.
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs decides that the answer must be back in Ohio…
  • Tired of sneaking around, Steve McQueen steals a motor cycle and peels out in The Great Escape
  • Spider-Man and Iron Man stop reacting and go on the hunt for the bad guy. 
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • This is usually considered the one unbreakable rule of fiction, but there are rare exceptions: the heroes of Bridesmaids and Witness remain reactive until the end, and the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark suddenly becomes passive in the third act.
  • The first cut of The Terminator included a much bigger proactive turn, but it was cut out in the editing room in order to speed the movie up, and that storyline became the basis for Terminator 2.  In this case, the movie was so exciting that the audience didn’t care.
  • In very rare cases, it can be heroic not to go on the offensive: the dad in Kramer Vs. Kramer could re-double his efforts when he loses his custody case, but he decides that would be too hard on his son. When his wife relents, it feels like he earned it by not fighting. 
Next: The Timeline is Unexpectedly Moved Up


j.s. said...

I'm wondering if there's a special case for stories about characters in extreme denial.

I just rewatched the Dardennes' THE CHILD, which I know you're a fan of too. The protagonist is nothing if not proactive for the entire length of the film. But he's also trying to solve the wrong problems for about 98% of the running time. And that, in essence, is his problem. He's forever living from moment to moment and hustle to hustle with no intention of taking responsibility for his own life, for his girlfriend and child or for the lives of the tweens he's suborning into crime on his behalf. So there's not really a scene where he opts to pursue a true goal because the whole journey of the film, right up until the very last moment, is to make him realize what his true goal ought to be.

This also seems to me to be one of the riskier and more honest versions of the story type Blake Snyder refers to as "Rites of Passage." But I wonder if the way THE CHILD works isn't more common to other "passage" stories, which are usually about somebody who stubbornly persists in pursuing the wrong goal or is simply unaware of what the right goal ought to be?

You might say that this film and a few others with similar concerns end in a spiritual crisis that illuminates the true goal. That there are no further steps after it. But looking back at the rest of your structural steps I'm tempted to remove all the ones between "the easy way" and the "spiritual crisis." Perhaps there's a "disaster" right before the "spiritual crisis." But the disaster and the crisis both come about because of the hero's persistence in doing things the easy way, of his inability to move past this approach to life.

However proactive a hero like Bruno is, can he really be said to "commit"? To be aware of his "longstanding personal problem"? To have any capacity -- before the film's final moments -- for humiliation?

Yet the film feels very carefully written, tightly structured and very much about one person with one problem. And it's more gripping than most of the Hollywood films I've seen that hew more closely to your list.

Matt Bird said...

I think it's somewhat common for art films to simply end on the spiritual crisis. I don't remember the beats of "The Child" well enough, but I recently noticed that "Old Joy", as meditative as it was, followed the common structure pretty faithfully:

Guy is alienated from wife / Drifter friend shows up / He goes camping with the drifter without engaging with criticism of his life / A series of setbacks on the trip cause him to start listening to the drifter's point of view / He realizes that he need to either re-commit to or end his marriage...

...And then the movie ends. He's committed to pursuing the true goal, we we don't know how that goes. This can be an equally valid structure if you're willing to seek out a smaller, more contemplative audience that does not demand as much closure.

j.s. said...

I guess the difference for me between the Dardenne's best work (pretty much everything except LORNA'S SILENCE which fails because its dilemma is over way before the film is) and most other art films is how rigorously the films track the arc of their protagonists, how compelling the storytelling is (both compared to other art films and to more mainstream Hollywood releases) and how artless they seem on the surface. The Dardennes never make it easy for their heroes. It's always in the end about things that are hard to want to do. And I feel like I'm on the edge of my seat watching what, in other hands, would be a more diffuse character study or just an excuse for sentimental indulgence. The brothers have certainly been good stewards of the legacy of Neorealism.

OLD JOY was agreeable enough to me on one viewing, but I'm not sure it's a good comparison. It really reminds me more of something like MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, where a series of conversations with an old friend provide for a conflict of worldviews. I'd have to see it again, but maybe calling the ending a spiritual crisis seems a bit of an overstatement.

The Dardennes may be skipping steps or unconventionally stretching out the screentime we spend in them Selbo-like, but they're doing something right.

One of their obvious models for the interior arc of THE CHILD's protagonist is Bresson's PICKPOCKET which itself is modeled on CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. If there were ever a fully gripping account of a guy who doesn't realize he's really doing it wrong and needs to grow up and come clean and has a final epiphany in the closing moments it's Dostoevsky's.