Friday, June 03, 2022

The Expanded Ultimate Story Checklist: By the time the final quarter of the story begins (if not long before), has your hero switched to being proactive instead of reactive?

Eventually you realize you can’t solve your problems without getting in the driver’s seat. 

While this is the latest possible moment for the hero to turn proactive, I should emphasize that it’s also fine for the hero to become proactive, starting way back when the hero commits or at any point in between.
  • Mike in Swingers finally goes out and meets a new girl. 
  • Cady in Mean Girls begins to make amends and joins the mathletes. 
  • Clarice in Silence of the Lambs decides that the answer must be back in Ohio. 
  • Tired of sneaking around, Steve McQueen steals a motorcycle and peels out in The Great Escape. 
This is usually considered the one unbreakable rule of fiction, but there are rare exceptions: The hero of Witness never becomes proactive, and the hero of Raiders of the Lost Ark suddenly becomes totally passive. (He decides to follow that old bumper sticker’s advice: “Let Go and Let God.”) The first cut of The Terminator included a proactive turn, but it was cut out in the editing room to speed up the movie. (Originally, they were on their way to blow up Skynet’s future manufacturing plant when the robot caught up with them, but that decision was cut out of the final version, so that storyline became the basis for Terminator 2.) Because the movie is so exciting, the audience doesn’t care that the heroes never become proactive.

In very rare cases, it can be heroic not to go on the offensive: The dad in Kramer vs. Kramer could redouble his efforts when he loses his custody case, but he decides it would be too hard on his son. When his wife relents and surrenders custody anyway, it feels like he earned it by not fighting. Likewise, in Sideways, Miles simply waits for Mya to call him at this point, but because he has a history of hostile drunk dialing, it seems heroic for him to summon up the patience to wait for her call.

Straying from the Party Line: The “Passive” Protagonist of The Farewell
There were many Western ways for The Farewell to end: 
  • Billi can’t take it anymore and confronts her Nai Nai with the truth.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but someone else unexpectedly snaps and confesses.
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception but the truth comes out accidentally.
  • Nai Nai figures out something’s going and gets the truth through interrogation.
In each case, this would happen around the ¾ point, and the fallout from the lie coming out would supply the drama for the final quarter of the film. I was fairly sure that one of these would happen. But I thought of one more possibility:
  • Billi agrees to go along with the deception, but as they say good bye, Nai Nai slyly hints that she knew all along and appreciates that nobody told her.
As we moved along, I started to think that was the most likely.

But then we get to the actual ending: Billi agrees to go along with the deception, and leaves without the truth ever coming out, and Nai Nai never gives any real hint that she knows the truth. The ending card implies that Nai Nai never found out and survived because of that.

This totally breaks our western rules of “big lie” storytelling. Big lies must come out! Once the rock has been rolled uphill, it must be released, come barreling back down and knock everybody flat.

Wang is defiantly refusing to give us what we expect and demand. This is the same conflict Billi has with her family. Wang is saying to us, “That’s the confrontational American way of doing things and you’re sure that it’s the only way, but there’s a gentler Chinese way, and our way can work better than your way, if you just learn to go with the flow.” No confrontation, no narrative climax, no release.

But, crucially, Wang knows she is defying our expectations. She’s not just saying, “Oh, did I create a passive protagonist? Whoops, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that.” She is creating tension by pointedly defying our expectations in every scene and that tension is powering her movie.

And the scene at the climax where Billi must run across town to forge a new medical report before the end of the wedding is absolutely crucial. Suddenly, she must improvise and actively participate in the plan to do nothing. She must act to maintain her lack of action. The ending would feel like a much bigger fizzle if she had not been forced into action like that, showing that she’d switched sides definitively.

Straying From the Party Line: The Passive Protagonist in Bridesmaids
  • Deviation: On paper, Annie seems like a fairly uninspiring protagonist. 
  • The Potential ProblemLet’s look at all the character ‘no’s on the checklist: She’s not good or clever at her job. She doesn’t have a strong self-image, or three rules she lives by. She’s largely buffeted by events and reacts as anyone would. She doesn’t just fail once at the mid-point—she suffers nine disasters in a row and becomes horribly depressed, which seems like a little much.  She never becomes proactive: even when she pitches in to help at the end, she does so only because Helen asks her to. She never takes charge of the situation or gets out in front of her troubles.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Surprisingly, it does. True, the third quarter is a downer, but the movie earns it by rooting Annie’s crisis to real-world pain: Annie extraordinary suffering is tied to America’s extraordinary suffering… Robert Kirkman famously created “The Walking Dead” to explore what happens after most zombie movies end. Likewise, Bridesmaids shows what happens after most romantic comedies end: she’s already had the traditional happy ending: her boyfriend helped her start her own business doing what she loved to do! But what happens when the economy crashes, the business fails and the boyfriend leaves? That horrible situation, reflecting the grim economic reality of so many Americans right now, fuels this movie, and allows it to go much darker than most romantic comedies dare to go. Ultimately, we are able to root for Annie throughout, despite her passivity and almost-bottomless depression. In fact, we totally love her, but the movie is walking a dangerous line, and it could have easily lost us.
Straying from the Party Line: Do the Right Thing's Passive Protagonist That’s Not Solving a Large Problem!
So finally we’ve captured that elusive beast: a great movie with a passive protagonist. In face, we have sometime even more rare: a great movie that’s not about the solving of a large problem!

Let’s start with our hapless hero Mookie, and all the ways he deviates from our list:
  • He’s not especially resourceful.
  • He has a lot more flaws than strengths.
  • He doesn’t make a lot of difficult decisions.
There is indeed a moment in just about the right spot where Mookie takes responsibility for a problem: 18 minutes in, he quickly shuts down Buggin’ Out’s first calls for a boycott, ushers him out, lectures him, and then Mookie comes back in and promises Sal that he’ll keep Buggin’ Out away from the pizza place.

So that sounds about right, and indeed this problem will get larger and larger, but Mookie himself will not do much of anything to solve that problem until it suddenly gets out of hand, more than an hour of screentime later.

(There is one scene about halfway through in which Mookie mildly repeats his advice to Buggin’ Out, but he actually makes the problem worse, because he also confirms Buggin’s worst fear by noticing that Buggin’s “Jordans are dogged”. He doesn’t suspect that the ruining of Buggin’s Air Jordans by a white homeowner on the block is by this point the real source of Buggin’s mounting anger.)

Meanwhile, Mookie skips most of the steps that we expect to see a hero go through:
  • His offhand commitment to solving this problem doesn’t lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person.
  • He doesn’t grapple with a lot of tough moral dilemmas.
  • He has no lowest point or midpoint disaster.
  • He doesn’t turn proactive until the height of the climax, when he acts suddenly, belatedly, and rashly.
So does the movie get away with all of this? Absolutely! Let’s break it down...

First of all, why doesn’t Mookie’s passivity infuriate us?
  • Like Jake Gittes back when he walked a beat in Chinatown, Mookie is in a position where it seems (at first) like the “right thing” to do is to do as little as possible. Shut down Buggin’ Out, shut down Pino, humor Smiley, compliment Raheem on his rings. We don’t get frustrated with him because it seems like he is indeed “doing the right thing” and successfully keeping the peace (You could say that the one time Mookie breaks his commitment to mildness is when he gets angry at Sal about being nice to Jade, and it is perhaps this violation of his code that karmically brings about the crisis.)
  • We can tell that a problem is brewing, and we sense that we can’t trust Mookie to resolve it, but that makes the movie more exciting. This isn’t a movie about the solving of a big problem, it’s about the gradual combustion of a suppressed problem. 
But this still leaves the question: why do we put up with it? There’s a good reasons why most stories are about active protagonists solving large problems: Because that’s how we’re primed to watch stories. Our first instinct is to invest our identification in one character, caring only about that character, and only caring about the story to the extent that we care about the character. This is the easiest way to tell a story and the easiest way to read or watch a story.

This movie asks a lot more of us. It asks us to jump around, and never plant ourselves too firmly in any one character’s shoes. This makes it harder to care, but Lee and his collaborators know how to compensate for this lack of a comfort zone:
  • It’s just really funny. The dialogue is funny. The performances are funny. The vibe is funny.
  • The editing style is bracing and invigorating. It’s bouncy. It’s brash.
  • It’s absolutely gorgeous to watch. Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson’s number one influence was Jack Cardiff, who shot Michael Powell’s movies, such as Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, and he successfully recreate the eye-popping use of impressionistic and vibrant color.
So why doesn’t it deflate the movie that nobody is trying to solve anything? I would say that we are somewhat aware as we watch that our narrative expectations are being frustrated, but we go along with it simply because we trust the filmmakers. Every aspect of the filmmaking is so good that we know we’re in safe hands, and we give the movie a reluctant benefit of the doubt until everything finally coalesces in a very satisfying way at the climax.

The 40 Year Old Virgin

YES, but proactive in a negative way until the last ten minutes.


YES, she’s standing up to everybody and trying to blow up the ship.

An Education

NO. She switches very late. The ‘third act” is only ten minutes, as was the first act.

The Babadook

YES. Well, it would be the final quarter if the final act weren’t so short.  That’s a problem with “it’s all in your head” stories: a corrected philosophy basically solves the problem. 

Blazing Saddles

YES. He’s proactive throughout.

Blue Velvet

YES. he’s proactive throughout.

The Bourne Identity

YES. at just this point.


NO. Somewhat, she still has to be asked to help find Lillian, and doesn’t have any influence on the final wedding. 


YES. “You have to think for both of us.”  “All right, I will.”


YES. He’s fairly proactive throughout, despite his claims to the contrary.  

Donnie Brasco

YES.  proactive from the beginning.

Do the Right Thing

YES. He waits too long.

The Farewell

YES. Yes, when…

The Fighter

YES. Very briefly, when he demands that they all work together, but once he does that, they do the work of working out their differences and leading him to the championship.


Sort of.  Her goal of getting Kristoff to kiss her is still somewhat passive, and Olaf is leading her around.  She really only become proactive at the last, crucial second. 

The Fugitive

YES. Very much so.  

Get Out

YES. He briefly tries to be proactive at the midpoint, but doesn’t succeed until the ¾  point. 

Groundhog Day


How to Train Your Dragon

YES. He devises the rescue plan.

In a Lonely Place

YES. he proposes marriage, forcing her hand.

Iron Man

YES. Finally cares where Stane is and what he’s up to. 

Lady Bird

YES. She goes off to school, despite her mom not talking to her.  

Raising Arizona

YES.  They lock and load and hit the road.


YES. He’s proactive throughout.


YES. He’s proactive throughout. 

The Shining

YES. finally.


Sort of. He never becomes proactive. Maya has to finally reach out to him, and it takes a huge effort just to be reactive, and drive to see her. BUT, they’ve set up a situation in which one of his big problems is drunk-dialing, so, ironically, it seems somewhat heroic that he doesn’t reach out to her, and waits for her to call. 

The Silence of the Lambs

YES. Goes to Ohio by herself.

Star Wars

YES. they plan to attack the Death Star…

Sunset Boulevard

Somewhat, when he starts sneaking out.  He doesn’t really become proactive until he walks out, with fatal consequences.  Perhaps he intended to tell Betty, or leave Norma, but…

No comments: