Tuesday, June 04, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 1: The Longstanding Personal Problem

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • The conventional wisdom says that the hero starts out content until the status quo is upset by an inciting incident. The hero overcomes the disruption and returns to the happy status quo at the end of the story.
  • But this doesn’t actually describe what happens in most stories, and it certainly doesn’t match human nature…
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we let a mess of troubles mount up long before we act. In fact, we only take on the massive work of solving a large problem once we have been discontent for some time.
  • One of our troubles, of course, is that we have internal flaws (which are usually the flip-side of our greatest strengths.) But when we set out to solve the problem that flaw is usually invisible to us. Most heroes do not set out to confront or fix their internal flaws. Only later do we realize that we cannot fix our problem without confronting our flaws.
  • But we are aware, right from the beginning, of a longstanding personal problem. This is usually something social in nature: we are broke, disrespected, emasculated, lonely, etc. 
  • So rather than start with a happy status quo that gets ruined by the “inciting incident”, most stories begin in the opposite way: the hero starts out with a longstanding personal problem and the “inciting incident” (even if it’s something horrible) presents itself as an opportunity to solve that problem, as we’ll see in the next two steps. 
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • If you want your heroes to be relatable, these problems should invoke empathy. Almost all of us think of ourselves as disrespected, for instance, but hardly any of us think of ourselves as racist. Unlike the flaw, which can be more unique, the problem should relatively universal.
Examples of Personal Problems
  • In Kramer Vs. Kramer, it’s tempting to say that Dustin Hoffman’s problem is that his wife has abandoned him and their son, but that’s not a longstanding problem that pre-dates the story, so it doesn’t fit into this category. Alternately, one might be tempted to say that his problem is that he’s not a good father, but that’s not something he’s aware of yet (it’s his flaw, not his problem). If we limit ourselves to longstanding issues that he’s already aware of, we see his real problem: he’s distracted. His work takes him away from his family, and he can’t decide which is more important. As horrible as it is, the disappearance of his wife will give him just the opportunity he needs to address this problem.
  • In Swingers, Jon Favreau’s problem is that his ex-girlfriend won’t call him back. Even though the audience can see right away that he’s better off moving on, we can also see that, for the time being, he’s defining his problem entirely externally. In this case, we, like his friends, empathize with his pain, but have little sympathy for his suffering, because he clearly needs to move on.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • James Bond in Goldfinger certainly has flaws (he’s callous and careless with other people’s lives: he recruits a girl to help him, accidentally gets her killed, then recruits her sister, and gets her killed too, and he doesn’t seem to care either time), but he doesn’t care about those flaws and he’s genuinely untroubled when the movie begins. Indeed it begins quite famously as strips off a frog suit to reveal a tux, then casually lights up a cigarette as his explosives go off behind him. Even that harrowing mission leaves him supremely untroubled. This formula worked for forty years, but, in his recent movies, Bond has bowed to the times and starts off each movie feeling troubled. 
Tomorrow: The Public Humiliation...


j.s. said...

I believe I've recommended this once before but this post again reminds me of a great book everyone who reads this site would like: "The Storytelling Animal" by Jonathan Gottschall.

Anonymous said...

Matt, you are a genius. Truly and seriously. Thank you so much for all your work!

Bill Peschel said...

Perhaps it's a reflection of my beliefs, but it also seems that personal problems are not solvable, that is, prevented from reappearing, but managed. A person with little empathy for others is not necessarily going to turn into Mr. Rogers by the end of the movie.

Many people believe that, however, and writers who buy into that (at least long enough to tell their stories) will succeed in writing for them. But if a writer hesitates while creating scenarios like this, it may be that you're not buying into the solution you're proposing.

I thought that was the one weakness with "Baby Boom," the Diane Keaton film from the '70s about a high-powered corporate exec who learns motherhood after she's fired. At the end, she returns to the company and delivers this long, heartfelt speech about what she's learned. Wonderful, but she could have showed that she was still the brilliant exec, arrange a company takeover, fire all the execs who screwed her over, then deliver the heartfelt speech. After all, even sharks have mothers.

Matt Bird said...

Again, I think that that's the difference between flaw and problem. The problem (disrespect, loneliness, misunderstood, etc.) usually *is* solvable, but the flaw (lack of empathy, loner, arrogant) is only manageable.

j.s. said...

Matt, that makes me think of the difference between film & TV character arcs. The conventional wisdom is that films need heroes who change, whereas TV heroes don't.

But, if, in your formulation, a feature film is about the protagonist successfully managing a flaw to overcome a problem, then a serious TV drama is instead more about managing/accepting/succumbing to the protagonist's flaw, regardless of how various problems (episode or season arcs) are handled in between.

Could it be that the phoney arcs Bill is having troubled with aren't just about the work of less skilled writers but ones who are misunderstanding the difference between a protagonist's problem and his/her flaw?

Justin Walsh said...

I saw another formulation of character that seemed very contained and elegant, and that might fit in well here. The elements are:

1. The Wound, a trauma the character experienced in the past that has left a psychological mark

2. Fear, what I think you'd call a Private Fear, Matt, which is the terror of experiencing that same wound again (the stakes!).

3. The Belief, which is your false statement of philosophy.

3. The Identity, which is the false self the character shows the world. This is the emotional armour that protects from the Fear, created by the Belief that comes from the Wound.

4. The Essential Self, which lies under all the armour, and is the end of the character's arc in the story.

What I love about this formulation is that it makes explicit the relations between the different elements that drive a character. It allows you to design the story world around the protagonist's problem, and ensure they must face their fear in the most appropriate way, creating a much more coherent drama.

And being both powerful, and slipping easily and directly into your own formulations, it got me excited ;)

Matt Bird said...

J.S.: You could say that both movies and TV feature a hero who overcomes a problem and manages a flaw, but in movies the emphasis is on the former and on TV the emphasis is on the latter.

Justin Walsh: I like it. "The Identity" lines up with my "Self-Image aka 3 Rules the Hero Lives By" and "The Essential Self" is similar to the end of my Jungian Arc.

j.s. said...

I'd say this way of thinking about managing flaws and solving problems illuminates the subtle continuity of Freud and Jung's approaches to therapy. After all, Freud's goal was never cure so much as to arrive at functional management that would allow a patient to solve most of his/her life problems more effectively. Jung's spin on that might be seen as simply a more optimistic view of any individual's flaw.

Looking at it this way, Matthew Weiner's and David Chase's takes on Tony Soprano aren't that far apart at all.