Thursday, April 02, 2015

Rulebook Casefile: Big Decisions and the Midpoint Disaster

We’ve spent the week discussing the rule that every story should have six painful decisions, spaced out fairly evenly throughout the story. (I’ve decided that it should definitely be “decisions” and not “dilemmas”, because dilemmas don’t imply action, and the story is stronger if the hero is forced to act in these situations.)

Yesterday, a commenter asked about how these painful decisions mapped onto the midpoint disasters that most stories have. (Of the 17 checklist movies we’ve done, only two, Do the Right Thing and How to Train Your Dragon, don’t really have midpoint disasters) The answer is that it varies. Usually the disaster is not the result of a poor decision, and even when it is, it tends to be a decision that the hero did not see as painful when he or she made it.

In many, the disaster is the consequence of a correct-but-poorly-executed decision:
  • Alien: The captain is killed while trying to kill the alien.
  • Casablanca: Rick’s club is trashed because he helped Victor
  • In Raising Arizona, the disaster comes after one of Hi’s only right decisions: the rejection of his brother-in-law’s wife-swapping plan.
  • The Shining: Danny and then Jack investigate Room 237
  • Donnie Brasco: Donnie’s wife changes her number because he’s too far in to call her.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Joe arrives home from going out with Betty to find that Norma has attempted suicide.
  • Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star while trying to reach Alderaan.
In some, it’s the consequence of a weak decision that was casually made, rather than painfully fretted over:
  • Iron Man: Tony finds out he was wrong to blindly trust Stane
  • Bridesmaids: Annie’s attempts to please everybody lead to a series of personal disasters.
In some it takes the form of an early-but-unheeded spiritual crisis:
  • An Education: Jenny finds out that they’re all crooks, but accepts that.
  • Blue Velvet: Jeffrey hits Dorothy.
  • Another from Donnie Brasco: Donny beats up the maître/d.
In one, it’s an external betrayal:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice and her boss are taken off the case because Chilton tells Lecter that she’s been lying to him.
In another, a wrong track comes to its bitter end:
  • Groundhog Day: Phil’s attempts to seduce Rita fail over and over.
In another, a hero wisely abandons an unsafe space:
  • The Bourne Identity: Jason decides to abandon his investigation and leave Paris with Marie in.
Only Sideways has what I would consider to be a clear case of a hero who faces a painful dilemma (Move on from his wife or close the deal with Maya), clearly chooses wrong, and finds out that the results are even more disastrous than he had counted on.

Next week: A new checklist!

1 comment:

Durand WELSH said...

That makes a lot of sense. Thanks Matt. That was really helpful. I was thinking about what you said while strolling about with the kids today, and especially How to Train your Dragon and the consequences of painful decisions and what makes a decision painful. What sprung to mind was that scene in the final training battle where Hiccup goes against everything he's been raised to be (a dragon killing Viking) and tries to show everyone that they don't need to fear dragons. He puts down his sword and essentially renounces who he is. The result is that Toothless has to rescue him and then gets captured.

Part of what I really liked about this scene is that because of his first choice to put down his weapons and try and show the Vikings that dragons can be befriended, he's forced into a second hard decision when he tells Toothless not to hurt his father, and Toothless looks back at him, confused, and then gets captured. So the whole film he's building trust with Toothless, and then because of his choice in the arena, he's put in a position where he has to choose to betray this trust. So the consequences from his first choice in the arena roll directly into another hard choice, this time where the stakes are even higher than the first choice. It's like the first painful decision boxes him into making an even harder second decision.

So like you've been saying, his decisions are hard for him to want to do. It's not just like an obstacle course, but each decision reflects some core aspect of his character. I just thought it was interesting in that scene how tightly one hard decision rolled into a second one. That was my interpretation of it, at least.