Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Storyteller’s Rulebook: Sometimes the Hard Way is the Bad Way
So usually the hero is trying a better (but still not best) way in the third quarter. But not always. “Lady Bird” shows us a not-uncommon tweak on the structure.
The titular heroine still tries the easy way in the second quarter, has a big crash, tries a harder way in the third quarter, fails again, then gets on the right path, but in this case, the easy way was naïve-but-admirable, and the hard way turns out to be the bad way.
But the structure still works: It’s still the case that she’s working harder and more resourcefully and accomplishing more. The only difference is that, in conjunction with that change, she loses her moral compass.
This puts the audience in a tricky relationship with our heroine: We love her, so we’re hardwired to want her to get what she wants. In the second quarter, that’s no problem, because we love everything about what she’s doing. We love her best friend Julie, we love that she’s decided to fix her life by starring in a Sondheim musical, and we love her love interest Danny.
But then, in the big crash, Danny turns out to be gay, so we’re glad she moves on, and glad that she decides to be more active and canny in the third quarter, but, suddenly, she starts alienating us along the way. She cruelly ditches her best friend and the theater program, pursues a friendship with a mean popular girl and a relationship with a cool, anarchistic boy.
We quickly realize after the midpoint, “Whoa, I still love Lady Bird, but I no longer want her to get what she wants. I’m rooting for her to fail, or, if she’s going to succeed, to make it out the other side of this and be reunited with her original decency.”
And that’s what happens: She cannily befriends the bad girl and beds the bad boy, but then she ditches them at the last moment and runs back to her previous best friend. She gets a corrected statement of philosophy and gets her life back on track, so then we can fully root for her again in the final quarter.