Thursday, June 06, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 3: The Intimidating Opportunity

The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Most storytelling gurus miss the essential irony at the heart of most stories.  Although the audience may perceive the “inciting incident” as something negative that must be fixed or undone, to the hero, who is mired in a longstanding personal problem, the major event that launches the story presents itself as an opportunity.
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • Simply restoring the status quo is never a strong motivation.  In real life, even horrible crises are usually treated not as temporary accidents that must be undone, but as opportunities for fixing long-standing problems.  It may be a myth that the Chinese use the same character for crisis and opportunity, but that myth persists because it rings true.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • In order to build sympathy, the opportunity should be obviously intimidating.  This shouldn’t be a no-brainer decision…
  • …but in order to avoid losing empathy, the full size of the potential conflict should not be immediately apparent, as we’ll see in the next three steps.
Examples of Intimidating Opportunities:
  • Many intimidating opportunities, such as the shark in Jaws and the runaway train in Unstoppable are disasters for everyone except the heroes, each of whom needs a chance to prove his continued usefulness.
  • A classic positive intimidating opportunity can be found in Superbad: on the one hand, they get to go to a real party and become heroes to their crushes by providing the beer…but on the other hand, it’s illegal and they’ve never tried it before.  It’s clearly intimidating, but they don’t yet know how bad it’ll be, because they don’t imagine that they’ll get mugged immediately.
  • Some intimidating opportunities exist only in the hero’s mixed-up mind: Kevin Spacey’s volatile chemistry gets unexpectedly set off by the sight of his daughter’s cheerleader friend in American Beauty, in both positive and tragic ways.
  • Sometimes it’s intimidating only because of the hero’s flaw, as with Andy’s trepidation in The 40 Year Old Virgin when his co-workers offer to get him laid.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Most movies follow the pattern of “Plot Motivates, Character Complicates”, with the first half driven by external forces, and the second half complicated by volatile character reactions.  However, even though they’re harder to write, there are also “Character Motivates, Plot Complicates” movies.  In these movies, the hero puts the plot into motion willfully, then comes to regret it in the second half when things get complicated.  These include Sullivan’s Travels and Silver Linings Playbook.
  • Sometimes, if the hero is particularly misguided, he may seize on an opportunity that in no way solves his problem.  Jason Schwartzman in Rushmore is explicitly told that he might be kicked out of school, which make him discontent, but for some reason he thinks that he can solve this discontent by pursuing a friendship with a school donor and a romance with a teacher.  In fact, of course, neither of these will keep him from getting kicked out, and both actually hasten his expulsion.
Next: Hesitation...

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