Sunday, June 09, 2013

How To Structure a Story Around a Large Problem, Step 4: Hesitation

We’ve got two short ones, so let’s do two in one day...Come back later for Part 5!
The Conventional Wisdom:
  • Nothing radical here.  This is a widely agreed-upon part of classic structure, going back to Joseph Campbell, who called it the “Refusal of the Call”
What Human Nature Dictates:
  • This is what distinguishes a big, life-changing problem from a small, no-brainer problem.  Hesitation proves that the opportunity is intimidating, indicating both high risk and high reward.
What Writers Should Keep in Mind:
  • It’s tempting to skip hesitation in order to speed up the first quarter and make the hero seem more forceful, but it’s equally important to cheer for and fear for the hero.  A healthy wariness reminds us to worry about the dangers and trust that the hero is not foolhardy.
Examples of Hesitation:
  • Hesitation scenes often establish the role of the hero’s friends, who either encourage or dismiss the hero’s doubts.  The friends in Salvador and Juno are dubious, but the more untrustworthy friends in Risky Business and Mean Girls say to go for it.  Or, as they say in the dubbed-for-TV version of the former: “Sometimes you just have to say, ‘What the hey!”
  • These scenes can also ease the audience into suspension of disbelief by giving the hero a moment to stop and say, “Hey, this is crazy, isn’t it??”  As seen in movies such as Back to the Future and The Terminator.
Notable Exceptions (But Don’t Try This At Home):
  • Another robot-like terminator is Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men.  He seems to have no flaws whatsoever, and he doesn’t hesitate at all.  Strangely, we still love him, despite his inhuman resolve.  There’s simply no time for dithering: he has to change eleven minds in 100 minutes.  
Later Today: The Hero Commits...  


j.s. said...

You could argue that in 12 ANGRY MEN Fonda's hesitation occurs off-screen -- like some of the important backstory in THE SHINING -- and before the film begins. This is another reason I keep returning to Jule Selbo's work. Her big idea can't be emphasized enough: While most stories go through the same steps in roughly the same order, not all of them spend the same amount of screentime in each step. Plus corollary I've mentioned above: That sometimes the steps may take place off-screen before the film begins or even after it ends.

Matt Bird said...

I suppose that's true. Doubt and curiosity presumably caused Fonda to wander the streets and find that knife, and then by the time he put it in his pocket the morning of the deliberations he was committed to swaying his fellow jurors, which is the point that we pick up the story.