Wednesday, June 05, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 2: The Public Humiliation

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Again, the public humiliation often gets lost in the concept of the “inciting incident,” but this is a crucial step, because it’s the moment that the hero’s longstanding personal problem finally becomes clear to the hero, and, most importantly, to the audience.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • In real life, we may be aware we have a problem, and feel troubled about it, but we are unlikely to confront it until that problem has been exposed to the world in a humiliating way.
  • The hero may have been only dimly aware of the problem before hand, but the social humiliation makes the problem acute.  Now that it has been made visible and exposed to the world, it cannot be ignored any longer.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • Humiliation scenes are tricky.  One the one hand, they should illuminate a real personal problem, but in order to create more sympathy, the size of the humiliation should exceed the size of the problem.  The best humiliation scenes are ones that are somewhat –but not entirely– unjust.
  • Iron Man 2 has an example of an unsympathetic humiliation.  A U.S. Senator is upset that a cocky millionaire arms dealer has his own personal weapon of mass destruction.  We’re supposed to boo the Senator, but why would we?  The Senator may be a jerk, but he’s totally correct.  Compare this to the first Iron Man: We have the same cocky arms dealer, but this time he becomes a prisoner of Afghani warlords, which is even worse than he deserves, so we have no trouble sympathizing with his plight, even though it’s something he brought down on himself.
Other Examples of Public Humiliations:
  • In The Awful Truth, the couple have been cheating on each other for some time, but it’s only when both are exposed while they have a house full of guests that they decide that it’s time to divorce.
  • In Witness, Harrison Ford hides a young Amish murder witness and his beautiful mother (Kelly McGillis) at his sister’s apartment.  The next day, after McGillis gets annoyed at Ford’s boorishness, she cheerfully conveys to him what his sister really thinks of him, laying out a litany of his personal flaws.  Coming from a witness, this embarrasses him both personally and professionally.
  • In Donnie Brasco, both the feds and the mafia tells Donnie that his mustache violates their regulations, drawing the first of many ironic parallels between the two institutions.  After he dutifully shaves it off, his wife laments that the mustache was the only thing she liked about his new identity: Clearly he’s being pulled in every possible direction.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • As with Step 1, the early James Bond movies make for a big exception.  Once they added Judy Dench as a far more withering version of “M”, things because to change.
  • In rare cases, the public humiliation happens offscreen before the movie begins, such as in The Shining.  Before the story begins, he has come home drunk, dislocated his son’s arm and been accused of abuse. 
Next: The Intimidating Opportunity...


Paul Clarke said...

Step 2 and already an eye opener.

Especially differentiating from the inciting incident. Looking through the chart it is easy to see that what we traditionally call an inciting incident could occur as part of step 2 or 3.

For example, in The Fugitive it's the public humiliation step when he's arrested.

For others like Die Hard or Spiderman it's the intimidating opportunity.

Very enlightening.

I ran my current script through the 14 steps and it fits pretty well. But then again, I didn't fully understand this step until it was explained. Bring on the rest.

Swinefever said...

Just wanted to say I absolutely love your blog. No matter how long I continue to write or how much I think I know, I learn something or find or a new way to look at something every time the RSS Reader goes 'ping'.

It really is very much appreciated, and long may it continue.