Sunday, March 29, 2015

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have At Least Six Painful Decisions

My new big-deal manager gushed about how much he loved my horror-thriller in order to keep me from signing with another guy, but then as soon as he had locked me down, he told me that he wouldn’t actually send it out because, “Eh, at some point, the story all runs downhill.” Huh? What does that mean? But no clarification was forthcoming. I’ve tried to grasp his point ever since.

Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.

I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?

As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)

The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.

What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.

Let’s look at Alien:
  1. Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
  2. Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
  3. Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
  4. Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
  5. Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
  6. Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
The dilemmas just keep on coming, and they’re all questions that we wouldn’t want to answer ourselves. And they keep going right up to the end. What if we didn’t have that tough last-minute decision? What if the final act had all been a gung-ho woman-vs.-alien struggle without any more painful dilemmas? It would be inert.

I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later. 

Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.


Durand WELSH said...

Do you think when faced with a good-good choice or a bad-bad choice that it is generally better to keep these choices as pure one-or-the-other choices? A lot of films seem to have the hero take a third, inventive approach when faced with two hard choices. Sort of dodging the actual choice altogether, but always at the last minute, so the tension is ramped up.

What's your view on that?

James Kennedy said...

I think it's a good idea to give a specific number like 6 because even if you can find some counterexample of a great movie has say only 5 such dilemmas, giving a definite number like 6 will help your screenwriter more by focusing their efforts (otherwise "several" could just mean 3, or the criterion becomes more or less forgettable ("yeah, I've got dilemmas in every scene, probably"))

Matt Bird said...


Durand, yes, I think they need to be "pure." (or impure, as the case may be. A good vs. evil choice would be "pure", but this is the opposite of that.)

Watching a hero wriggle out of facing a tough dilemma is quite frustrating. In WRATH OF KHAN, the whole point of the Kobiashi Maru is that Kirk is used to cheating death, but then Spock dies and he can't cheat it this time, which makes it all the more impactful. Then you got the loathsome remake INTO DARKNESS, which made the opposite point, as the "tough consequences" were reversed almost instantaneously, ensuring that we could feel nothing but resentment.

Anonymous said...

I think it's possible that your new manager also used to represent me, because that first paragraph is unsettlingly familiar! Obviously heaps of caveats, because what do I know, and lots of other people have had a good experience with this outfit. But I know two people at least who kind of got shredded in the machine there. (If it's the same outfit. Does it rhyme with badmouse?)

Anyway, I genuinely don't want to gossip or vague it up, just saw this and wanted to encourage people to listen to their instincts about this stuff. If someone is saying "I can't send this out" and it feels like your best work, or right up there, at least consider the idea that they're not actually more correct than you are.

(I was a working writer coming off a studio deal when I signed there, so I should have known better, but people can be so vague, yet authoritative.)

Matt Bird said...

Nope, sounds like a different guy, but they're all the same. They used to warn you about getting "hip-pocketed" and/or "spec farmed" but that's the deal for everyone nowadays.

The problem is that the only reason they get interested in you is because another manager/agent is interested in you. They're just engaging in turf wars with each other and you're the latest patch of dirt. So once you "sign" with one, and then realize he sucks, then you can't go back to the others and choose them instead. You're radioactive now.

Christine Bird said...

A Civil Action, the book on which the John Travolta movie was based, lays out the way personal injury law firms work. As would-be clients present themselves, they are told "Oh yes, you have a very strong case. Big dollar payout. Please please let us represent you." Once the "client" signs, his case is put on a shelf with dozens of others--far more cases than the law firm will ever get to. The "client" is, however, barred from signing with anyone else.

Parker said...

I really like this rule. Thanks for explaining it.

Michael W. Cho said...

Not really, though. There is a lien on the case so the lawyer can recover expenses. Usually a client leaves because they have unrealistic expectations, not because of a scam. That is not to say there aren't "Mills" firms that go for bulk and don't do a here job.