As I searched for the six toughest decisions in the Checklist movies, I played around with rating each one as (in retrospect) either (R)ight, (W)rong, or (U)nclear. The results say some interesting things about genre structures:
Coming-of-age stories tend to be about making bad decisions until the very end:
W: Accept the come-on? Yes.
W: Lie to her parents and go to Oxford with him? Yes.
W: Agree to ignore his crimes? Yes.
W: Have sex with him? Yes.
W: Accept the marriage proposal? Yes.
R: Humiliate herself to get back into school? Yes.
In some action films, on the other hand, the hero can make nothing but right decisions:
The Bourne Identity:
R: Speak to the lady at the Embassy? No.
R: Climb down the wall? Yes.
R: Trust Marie? Yes.
R: Continue investigating his past after they discover bad things? No.
R: Leave Marie and return to Paris? Yes.
R: Kill Conklin? No.
Horror movies tend to have a series of wrong decisions followed by a series of right decisions:
W: Answer the distress signal? Yes.
W: Break quarantine? Yes.
W: Remove the face-hugger or not? No. (To be fair, they can’t figure out how)
R: Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? Kill it.
R: Blow up the whole ship to kill it? Yes.
R: Go back for the cat? Yes.
But other action movies are less clear. We’re never sure in Blue Velvet if Jeffrey’s investigation did anybody any good or not, so we get a lot of ‘U’s:
R: Come home to help with the store? Yes.
U: Pick up the ear? Yes.
U: Investigate it outside the law? Yes.
W: What to do when Dorothy finds him there? Have sex with her.
W: Hit her when she asks him to? Yes.
R: Finally tell Sandy everything when Dorothy shows up? Yes.
U: Go confront Frank? Yes.
But then a seemingly straightforward movie like Iron Man gets a lot of ‘U’s, too:
R: Agree to build the weapons for the terrorists or let himself be shot? He pretends to agree under false pretense.
U: Let Shinzen sacrifice himself so he can escape? Yes.
R: Get back into the arms business? No.
W: Trust his partner? Yes.
U: Take the next step with Pepper she makes herself vulnerable at the fundraiser? Not yet.
U: Lie to the press about Iron Man? No.
So does Iron Man feel like an art film? No, not at all, but Tony is harder to trust than Jason Bourne. We’ve had four Iron Man movies now, and in each one his ethics have turned out to be right for the situation, but we’re never sure if that will always be true. It looks like Tony’s next two appearances (The Avengers 2 and Captain America 3) will finally pay off the possibility that he might be capable of doing more harm than good. Once again, Marvel plays the long game.
Groundhog Day is a classic example of a movie that follows the general 14-point structure of most stories that are about the solving of a large problem…and it’s also an example of how to incorporate specific pre-described psychological arcs into that structure. Phil’s journey mirrors not one but two psychological models. The story as a whole follows Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…
Denial: Phil thinks it’s all a dream
Anger: Punches out Ned Ryerson, blows off his broadcast.
Bargaining: Tries to take advantage of situation.
Depression: Attempts suicide many times
Acceptance: Tries to make use of this gift.
…but those last two steps can also be broken down further, because they mirror the “twelve steps” of Alcoholic’s Anonymous as described by that group’s founder “Bill W.”. We talked before about how Phil doesn’t have much chance to think about his past or make amends for past wrongs that pre-date what we see, but even within the movie’s narrowly-proscribed world, he pretty much manages to cover all 12:
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable: In this case, it’s not alcohol, it’s just selfishness. He hits rock bottom when he ends eight days in a row by getting slapped by Rita, then commits suicide for several days in a row, saying, “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now. I just want you to remember that we had a beautiful day together once.”
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity: Finally, he decides to just be honest with Rita and tells her that he suspects he might be a god, “Well, not the god, I don’t think, but a god.” After proving that he’s now almost omniscient, she agrees to spend the day with him. At the end of the day, she falls asleep on his bed as he reads poetry, and the only line we hear is “Only god can make a tree.” He realizes that he’s not god after all, because god is a greater power than him.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him: He pauses after reading that line and thinks.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and...
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs: He says to her. “The worst part is that tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about this. And you’ll treat me like a jerk again. It’s alright. I am a jerk.”
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character, and...
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings, and...
Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all: The next morning, he brings Rita and Larry coffee and muffins and does a much better job with his broadcast..
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, and...
Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it: He tries to save the homeless man who he refused to give money to before, but he finds that the man will die no matter what.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out: When the homeless person dies again, he gives up on saving him and looks up to the sky with a questioning look.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs: He helps as many people as he can in the town, doing good all day long, until the whole town is moved by his example, which finally allows him to break out of his spiral.
Of course, it could well be that neither of these arcs was conscious on the part of the screenwriters, and that’s the beauty of it. These thinkers were describing the nature of problem solving, and any well-written story about solving a similar problem will make the same discoveries on its own. Ultimately, self-help gurus and writers are doing the same job: identifying the universal human nature underlying our problems.
In college we joked that Shakespeare was just like life: The comedies all end with marriage and the tragedies all begin with one. I certainly haven’t found that be true in life, and even in fiction (even in Shakespeare, in fact) the rule is overstated.
Nevertheless, this does give us a clue as to the nature of Drama: it tends to pick up where comedy leaves off. Comedy ends with the removal of a mask and the beginnings of humility, but that’s where drama tends to begin. Dramas are, more than anything, about growth. The hero’s flaw and the hero’s problem tend to be one and the same: they know that they’re their own worst problem and they’re determined to fix it.
Discontent or Disaster / Humbled Growth / Back-Sliding / Self-Actualization:
Kramer vs. Kramer
The Wrestler (self-actualization through death)
The King’s Speech
Tragedies, unlike every other type of movie, frequently have a midpoint high-point, rather than a midpoint disaster. Tragedies usually feature anti-heroes who are somewhat loathsome, but sometimes they feature heroes who are too good to live, like Serpico or Jack in Titanic.
Discontent / Rising / Strained to Breaking Point / Death of Body, Career, or Soul:
Dog Day Afternoon
Donnie Brasco (Surprisingly)
The Talented Mr. Ripley
The Black Swan
There Will Be Blood
Finally, commenter Beth asked earlier this week if I would cover the genre of romance, but as far as I can tell, there is no such genre. Every romance, it seems to me, is merely the romantic version of some other genre, usually comedy or tragedy. Am I wrong? Is there a romance arc?
Next week, we’ll have one more post before we start go through the structure list, on different psychological arcs that exist alongside these.
Yesterday, we looked at thriller, mystery/conspiracy, and action movies. The horror movie has much in common with all three, but it’s fundamentally different. In horror, the audience has less identification with the hero than in any other type of story.
In action and conspiracy movies, we identify with the hero the whole time. Even when the heroes are kicking themselves in the third quarter for being overconfident in the second quarter, we fully identify, since we shared their adrenaline rush, and we, too, failed to see the disaster coming.
Thrillers are trickier. We share the thrill of transgression in the second quarter, but we do see the disaster coming, and we withhold some of our sympathy even then. In the third quarter, when the sinning hero suffers consequences, we switch to a judgmental attitude and look down on the same transgressions that we just vicariously enjoyed.
In horror, we always empathize with the heroes, in that we share their fear, but we rarely sympathize, because their suffering is usually somehow their fault. The transgression usually happens much earlier, in the first quarter or before the movie starts, and we take no joy from it. Instead, our joy comes from a mix of sharing the heroes’ fear and sharing the evil force’s desire to punish them. As the advantage keeps shifting between the two sides, we win either way.
Transgression / Denial and Dread of Unseen Consequences / Horror at Visible Consequences / Triumph or Succumb:
Frankenstein (transgression = creating life)
King Kong (transgression = fetishization of the exotic)
Rosemary’s Baby (punished for the ambition of her husband)
Halloween (Laurie is punished for the sexual transgressions of her friends)
Alien (transgression = defending company)
The Shining (transgression = drinking and abusing child, happened before movie)
Scream (transgression = lack of desensitization to horror combined with old-fashioned teen horniness)
Tellingly, even in movies where we don’t see any transgression, we’re so hard-wired to blame the victims that we spend the whole movie trying to figure out what the heroes might have done to deserve this, because they must have done something. You can see the audience dynamic in such movies as…
The Birds (Critics have twisted themselves into knots trying to figure out why the opening scenes justify the attack. I think Hitch’s true point is that people will always blame themselves for nature’s fury, even when they shouldn’t.)
Night of the Living Dead (“What did humanity do to deserve this?” is the implied question, which is ironically answered by the final scene)
The Exorcist (The priests keep asking why the devil would choose this girl)
Saw (Victims try to figure out what they did wrong)
28 Days Later (Again, “What did we do to deserve this?” is asked many times)
These three genres can seem almost interchangeable, and they tended to share the same shelf space at video stores, back when those existed, but their underlying structures are surprisingly different.
The first surprise is that thrillers have almost the same underlying structure as comedies. As with Comedy, classical thrillers tend to focus on a hero who creates his own problem by transgressing society’s norms, creating this very similar quartet: Discontent / Transgression / Consequences / Victory or Defeat
Strangers on a Train (punished for a transgression he only considered)
Bonnie and Clyde (surprisingly)
Silence of the Lambs (Sort of: transgression = sharing with Lecter / consequences = Lecter’s escape. Actually, this movie proves to be surprisingly slippery, and could be squeezed into any of these three categories)
But that definition leaves out movies that are driven by conspiracies, so we have to give them their own category. These movies feature little or no transgression by the hero, and focus on exterior antagonism. The arc is: Injustice / Overconfident Investigative Crusade / Betrayals / Revelation
All the President’s Men
L. A. Confidential
Crimson Tide (surprisingly, since it feels more like thriller or action)
What about action movies? Surprisingly, they’re closer to Mystery/Conspiracy movies than they are to thrillers, since both are focused on external problems rather than personal flaws. The arc is: Injustice / Kicking Ass Overconfidently / Getting Ass Kicked / Victory or Defeat
The Great Escape
The French Connection
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Once again, many movies end up in very different categories than I thought they would:
Thor feels like straight-up action and not at all like a thriller, but it’s structured like the latter than the former: It’s focused not on the external threat but on the hero’s folly and culpability in all that follows. The movie is more critical of Thor than Loki.
Donnie Brasco feels like a thriller, but doesn’t fit into any of these categories. Instead, it charts like a tragedy, which is a structure we’ll look at later in this series.
The final surprise: Certain movies (each of which were adapted from several years worth of stories in another medium), combined more than one of these arcs, but in each case, they didn’t overlap—One arc wraps up and then the other begins immediately thereafter:
The Fugitive (compressed from a four-year TV epic) crams an entire action arc into its first 40 minutes, then fits a mystery arc into the remaining 80 minutes.
Spider-Man (covering the first ten years of the comic) zips through a thriller arc, in which the power goes to Peter’s head and he suffers the consequences, then it wraps that up and devotes the rest of the movie to an action arc, as he deals with the external threat of the Green Goblin
Iron Man (covering 20 years of the comic) does the opposite: first we have an action arc, dealing with the external threat of the warlord, then a thriller arc, as Tony comes home and lets his powers get to his head, and deals with the consequences at the end.
Tomorrow, something similar and yet very different: Horror
Just to review, the general arc of classical structure, as I identify it, can be boiled down to four quarters separated by three turning points:
First quarter: Longstanding problem becomes acute through a humiliation and a new opportunity to solve that problem is identified.
¼ point: Hero commits to the opportunity.
Second quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the easy way.
Midpoint: Disaster and loss of safe space
Third quarter: Hero tries to solve the problem the hard way.
¾ point: Spiritual crisis
Final quarter: Wiser hero solves or succumbs to problem.
For now, let’s just focus on the four quarters. The essential quartet of Problem / Easy Way / Hard Way / Resolution is vague enough to apply to just about any story about a large problem, but eventually you get tired of having to squint all the time. When we opened our eyes all the way and tested this structure against some actual movies, we found that different genres tended to have very different takes on that quartet. This week, we’ll look at hour several different genres tend to define those four quarters.
Surprisingly, although there are many profoundly different subgenres of comedy, I was able to identify on more-specific quartet that applied to almost all of them:
Discontent / Transgression with Mask / Deal with Consequences / Growth Without Mask:
Easy Living (mask = false identity that is thrust upon her)
The Awful Truth, His Girl Friday (mask = pretend to no longer to be in love)
Sullivan’s Travels (mask = phony poverty)
Some Like It Hot (mask = drag)
The Apartment (transgression has already begun, then escalates, mask is unwanted but adopted to get ahead at work and explain strange goings on to his neighbor)
The Producers (mask = scam)
Breaking Away (mask = Italian accent)
Risky Business (mask = sunglasses)
Tootsie (mask = drag)
Raising Arizona (literally with and without masks)
Swingers (mask = phony pick-up persona)
Rushmore (he’s been wearing the mask for years, but now it escalates)
Wedding Crashers (mask = fake identities)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (mask = fake confidence)
Juno (first transgression has already happened, second transgression happens late)
Superbad (mask = fake ID)
Mean Girls (mask = fake personality)
The Hangover (transgressions not seen, revealed as part of lengthened consequences section)
Even the exceptions I identified were slight:
In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant has no mask but it doesn’t matter because Hepburn insists on treating him as something he isn’t, so he gets the same benefit, in that he gets to flee his responsibilities for a time.
I was surprised that Bridesmaids, which feels like a very classical comedy, is the most atypical of the comedies I looked at, since our hero engages in almost no transgression, but merely attempts to be dutiful. She does wear a mask, however, to the extent that she pretends not to be broke and not to be horribly depressed about friend’s wedding and life in general.
Though, as we’ll see throughout the series, some movies end up jumping into other categories altogether:
Dr. Strangelove didn’t fit at all, but I think that that’s because it’s a conspiracy movie that’s played as a comedy and thus fits the “mystery” arc that we’ll look at tomorrow. (It was adapted from a dead serious novel)
Annie Hall, likewise, doesn’t fit, because it’s really a drama arc played for laughs.
Then I did a week on the idea that “inciting incident” wasn’t a very useful concept, so it should be replaced by three ideas: Problem-Opportunity-Conflict.
Now we’re back to make more sense of it all.First of all, as you can see, I’ve changed the title.For the purposes of the upcoming book, I’ve been expanding my definitions to apply to different storytelling media, but I also want to make it clear that there’s lots of stories that these steps don’t apply to, such as long-form TV or comic book serials, and also movies with atypical ambitions.
I don’t want to imply that beloved movies like Weekend or Slackeror Pulp Fiction are doing anything wrong simply because they’re notabout the solving of a large problem.This structure doesn’t describe some sort of “inherent nature of celluloid”, it merely describes the natural progress that most humans go through when we try to solve a large problem, which is why, if you’re writing that kind of story, in whatever media, you should probably hit most of these steps in roughly this order.
In this series, we’re going to walk through the steps of the most common structure, but that will actually start nextweek.First we’re going to spend a week expanding my previous thoughts about specific genre structures.Over the course of the Checklist Road Tests, it seemed that the concept of “the promise of the premise” was unclear, partially because I borrowed it from Blake Snyder.
It emerged that this could mean very different things depending on the genre.In some genres, such as comedy and thrillers the audience and the hero are having fun together, but we also saw that in horror movies such as Alien, the audience is having fun because the heroes are suffering. So this week we’ll tackle…