Believe Care Invest: How to Train Your Dragon

Why it might be hard to identify with Hiccup:
  • It’s always tricky to establish your hero as a lovable underdog without them tipping over in the territory of being an unlovable loser. Hiccup is right on that line when we first meet him. He’s very puny, especially compared to the Vikings all around him. He’s got a squeaky voice. Everyone pities him. “You can’t lift a hammer, you can’t swing an axe,” they tell him.
  • The level of detail in this world is stunning right away, both in terms of the visuals and the narrative world-building. We begin with a paradox: “My village has been here for seven generations but every single building is new.” Then we find out why: Dragons burn it down regularly. The strange mix of Scottish and Norse culture feels new.
  • They hired Roger Deakins to help “light” the movie because they were tired of overlit CGI movies. Right away, we’re thinking, “Oh, this feels more real than a PIXAR movie.” iii. He was given a hideous name so he could frighten off gnomes and trolls, which is a unique detail.
  • Dragons are trying to kill him and everyone else. Everybody yells at him to get back inside. His father doesn’t approve of him, to put it mildly. His boss tells him “You need to stop all this.” “You just pointed to all of me.” “Yes, that’s it, stop being all of you.” He can’t get a date with the girl he likes.
  • So just when we’re saying, “I can’t invest in this loser,” he uses his inventing skills to bring down the most feared dragon of all, the Night Fury. No one’s ever done that before. Now we love him.
Five Es
  • Eat: No
  • Exercise: He’s running around when we first see him, then hauls his equipment to the edge of town.
  • Economic Activity: He’s working his job which he’s clearly good at. “I’ve been his apprentice ever since I was little …well, littler.”
  • Enjoy: Not really.
  • Emulate: “You are many things, but a dragon killer isn’t one of them.” “I just wanna be one of you guys.”
Rise above:
  • He’s ordered not to leave his job (“Stay. Put. There.”) but runs out as soon as they’re not watching him to go down a dragon.
  • …but then, once he’s downed a dragon, earning himself the job he’s always wanted, he rises above that job as well, and decides that they should all make peace with the dragons.
High five a black guy
  • No

How to Train Your Dragon: The Archive

One of the first movies I spent a lot of time on.  In regards to the third piece below, I’ve now seen Up many times with my daughter, and it bugs me more and more every time that he’s able to throw away his walker at the end due to an attitude adjustment.  I’ve also seen this one many times with her, and admire it more every time.

New Checklist and Rulebook Casefile: Observations in How to Train Your Dragon

I’ve updated the Checklist road test for How to Train Your Dragon and you can check it out here. Now let’s look at one of the new answers in more depth:

Another new question in the checklist is “Is the movie based more on observations than ideas?” I have this under “Theme”, because startling fealty to real life is more likely to create deeper meaning than any big ideas you may want to impart, but the fact is that these observations don’t just improve theme, they empower every aspect of the process.

As I pointed out here, movies must reflect how the world works even if they’re not set on our world, and I discussed here how fantasy worlds should draw most of their mythology and methodology from real-world cultures. How to Train Your Dragon is a great example of both, but the movie’s commitment to reality goes even further...

The heart of the movie lies in the astounding silent sequences in which Hiccup and Toothless the dragon form their tenuous bond. In the book, the dragon could talk, but the filmmakers made the daring decision to render him mute, even though they were adapting the story to a far more dialogue-dependent medium. How did they pull it off?

One would assume that, when writing a dragon story, the fun part would be coming up with the complex dragon mythology and the crazy creatures, and this movie has glimpses of that, but for the most part, they don’t let their imaginations run wild: they base all of Toothless’s behavior on real animals…specifically cats and tigers.

They could have just assumed that we would say “Hey, these dragons are clearly real, since we can see them!” but they knew that, especially in an animated movie, merely seeing a character is not believing. We would only truly believe in these dragons if we recognized their behavior. By basing their dragon behavior on close observation of real-life animals, they accomplished that.

(And another related fact from the excellent DVD documentaries: they brought in master cinematographer Roger Deakins to advise them on their “photography”, and he taught them how to simulate light more realistically than any other computer animated movie, creating truly hard shadows for the first time. The effect is both beautiful and subconsciously powerful, giving even the cartoony main characters a startling solidity. That made the writers’ job a lot easier.)

Storyteller’s Rulebook #185: Heroes Should Ascend, Not Descend

Yesterday, I implored you to simplify motivation rather than multiply it, but then I found myself advising you to make the kind of movies I hate.  Yes, your job will be the easiest if your the heroes are always motivated by personal pain and gut instinct, but that’s precisely the reason that I so many modern American movies are so bad.

The original heroes of “Star Trek” were motivated by ideas and ideals.  In the J. J. Abrams remake, it was just, “He killed my dad!”  “He killed my mom!”  “Let's team up and kill him!”  I was bitterly disappointed.

Or compare Argo to Zero Dark Thirty.  According to yesterday’s advice, Argo would be bad (he was just doing his job, didn’t have strong feeling about his Iranian opponents, and had some vague sense that helping the hostages would allow him to re-approach his wife) while ZDTwould be great.  But for me, the opposite was true: Argo seemed thoughtful and complex, whereas ZDT, even if I’d been willing to ignore its politically-motivated factual inaccuracies, would still just be a brain-dead macho revenge flick.

And there have always been too many movies (For Your Eyes Only, Batman Returns) in which hero condemns another character for seeking revenge, only to then take violent revenge against his own enemies, because that's the only type of movie that Hollywood knows how to make.

This brings us right back to The Great Hypocrisy.  How can the hero defeat the villain without sinking to his level?  How does a movie stay true to its ideals and yet still deliver a viscerally satisfying climax?  Most importantly, how do you escalate your hero’s motivation without debasing it?

Let’s go back to one of our backdoor storytelling gurus, Abraham Maslow.  I think that one reason I find all of these revenge movies so deflating is that they turn Maslow’s pyramid on its head.  In retrospect, I see that it can work to add additional motivation as the story progresses, but only if you’re climbing up Maslow’s pyramid, not descending downward.

It’s far more powerful if your hero starts outseeking revenge for himself, then realizes that no, it’s better to get justice for others.  If the hero goes the other way, it feels like a moral defeat, even if it ends in personal victory. 

The heroes of the Lethal Weapon movies start out seeking justice and end up seeking revenge.  The result is a temporary visceral thrill that leaves us ashamed of ourselves an hour after we’ve left the theater.  The heroes of Star Wars and How to Train Your Dragon begin by seeking revenge and end up seeking justice, which leaves the audience feeling ennobled and deeply satisfied.

Straying from the Party Line: Mixed-Up Crises in How to Train Your Dragon

On first blush, this seems like a very traditional stand-up-and-cheer movie with an intensely lovable hero and a very traditional heroic journey…but a closer look reveals a strikingly odd structure.

Deviations: The crises are all mixed up:
  • Hiccup does indeed have a social crisis in the first scene, when he is blamed for getting a building burned down… 
  • But then Hiccup has his spiritual crisis very early, at the end of the first quarter, when he finds that he can’t kill the dragon.  Instead, in a flash of moral clarity, his philosophy flips from wrong to right like a light-switch, and he never doubts the right course again.
  • He has no midpoint crisis.  Instead the middle is structured like a tragedy: he is acclaimed and accepted at the midpoint, because he’s been using his time with Toothless to learn things that allow him to master the dragons he faces in his training.
  • The physical crisis (and loss of place of safety, and loss of sheltering relationship) that usually comes at the midpoint instead happens at the ¾ mark, when the spiritual crisis usually takes place.  The village discovers his dragon then takes it away to hunt down the nest.  However, this doesn’t make him question his philosophy—he’s dispirited but doesn’t feel any guilt or doubt about doing the right thing. 
Potential Problem: This brings up two big questions:
  1. First, whydo the crises almost always happen in the standard order (social, then physical, then spiritual) The answer, I think, is that we only pursue dangerous opportunities after social humiliations force us to do it, and then we only change after our old ways have begun to physically endanger us.
  2. Second, what are the dangers of changing the order?  Well obviously, such a quick change of philosophy can feel unearned, and if the hero is on the right path so early, the rest of the movie can seem morally inert…right?
Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, it does.  The drama comes from the fact that, even though Hiccup knows the spiritual truth, his newly moral stance is in such total opposition to the beliefs of his entire society, that he still has a massive job to do, bringing others around.  He still seems like a fallible, self-deluded person to the extent that he believes he can have it both ways (befriending a dragon in private and besting them in public) until it all comes crashing down.  This is a movie about a hero who has the right morals, but is very uncertain about the most effective ethical way to spread that morality.

Most movies are parables about how to change yourself, but this is a parable about how to change your society after you’ve found the right path.  As it turns out, this is a rich topic that should be explored more often.

The Ultimate Story Checklist: How To Train Your Dragon

Updated to the sixth and final checklist!
Hiccup is the weakling son of a mighty chieftain in a Viking village on a rocky island that is regularly attacked by fire-breathing dragons. In the middle of a nighttime attack, Hiccup uses a device he invented to trap a fearsome dragon, but when he goes to kill his captive, he suddenly decides to befriend it instead, naming it “Toothless”. He uses his secret time with Toothless to learn how to excel at dragon-fighting class, humiliating his classmates, including Snortlout, Fishlegs, and beautiful tomboy-warrior Astrid. When his father kidnaps Toothless and forces him to reveal the location of the dragon nest, the students race to get there first and make peace.
PART #1: CONCEPT 18/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
 An underestimated Viking prince captures and bonds with a dragon, so they try to bring peace to their two tribes.
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
 A dragon killer in training succeeds by befriending a dragon.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
 Training a pet, but with two civilizations on the line.
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
 Yes, there are lots of montages that show Hiccup’s incremental progress at solving the problem without worrying about what Hiccup does all day.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
 A boy and his dragon.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
 His father specifically and whole village generally, and then the final dragon.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
 Greatest hope: impressing dad. Greatest fear: having to fight dragons.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
 In order to make peace, he must disappoint his father.
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
 Ironically, yes, even though he’s the only one avoiding direct confrontation, he does wind up working the hardest, day and night, learning how to understand his dragon and use those methods in training. In the end, only he can communicate with Toothless and save the day.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
 He transforms his whole civilization and himself.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
 Lots of eye-popping 3-D, lots of action, lots of giggle-worthy-comedy, beautiful imagery
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
 Vikings fighting dragons. Catlike dragons.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
 Not really.
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
 The dragons have an evil overlord forcing them to attack the village.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
 He makes a lot of funny self-deprecating wisecracks in the opening voice-over.
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
 He’s the village loser.
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
 He’s actually the only one who can take down a night fury.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
 A few mild ones, such as 21st century anachronism: “we have stubbornness issues.” And drama: “Duh-da-duh! We’re dead!”
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 He’s sarcastic and a pessimist, even when things are going well.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
 Stammering out a string of excuses until something sticks.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
 His motivation is complex.  His initial motivation, to impress his father, is all of those things, but he loses all of that motivation as soon as he befriends Toothless, then he’s uncertain of his own goal for a while, then he forms a relatively selfless motivation of making peace, but he uses his knowledge to continue to impress the village while he tries to figure out how to do that, so his motivation is definitely more complex than most heroes, which is fine. It’s an ambitious movie. 
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
 “Taking down one of those would definitely get me a girlfriend!” “No one has ever killed a night fury, I’m going to be the first.”
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
 Get a girlfriend, bring down a night fury, impress his dad.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
 Open: Failing to impress his dad.  Private: Afraid that he’s totally different from the rest of village.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
 Very much so.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
 His flaws are rather small, but he can be naïve and pessimistic.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
 He’s compassionate, smart and perceptive.
Is the hero curious?
 Very much so.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
 He invents and builds elaborate devices.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
 Not really. He’s very open to change. Just one, maybe, something like “I can build something to solve this.”
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
 The others are all meatheads.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
 Yes, but only in muttered asides.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
 Yes, he’s running around trying to join a dragon fight.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
 He doesn’t naturally have it, but he claims it.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
 He uses his blacksmith skills to make weapons, make an appendage for the dragon, etc. Uses his ability to draw to make friends, design devices.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 17/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
 Gets no respect in the opening battle, and tells us about his predicament in voiceover.
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
 He almost burns the village down.
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
 He finds that he’s downed a night dragon, but doesn’t know what to do with him. (This is where he has his spiritual crisis as well, very early!)
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
 Goes to dragon training, tries to be like the others.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
 Goes back to the dragon.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
 Not yet. The dragon is hard to train, but not as much as he thought it would be. Astrid finds out what he’s doing, but that’s later.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
 Uses what he learns from the captive dragon to excel in dragon-fighting class.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
 Loves first flight with the dragon. It looks like he’ll tame toothless and become the hero of the village.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
 It happens very late, more like ¾of the way in, when his relationship with Toothless is exposed. At that point his father condemns him and takes his beloved pet dragon away At the midpoint, he actually reaches a kind of peak, which is closer to the structure of a tragedy. 
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
 Not really. He was really trying the hard way (doing it all himself) before, and now he’s trying the easier (and better) way, working with his classmates.
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
 His father goes off to the nest.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
 Not really. Again, the crises are reversed in this movie. He has the spiritual crisis in the first quarter, has no midpoint crisis, then loses everything at the ¾ mark (but not in a way that makes him question his already-corrected philosophy). So then, given the fact that he is on the straight and narrow from minute 20, why doesn’t the movie feel inert? Because there are so many ramifications of that initial crisis for him to deal with, and because he still tries to have it both ways until the loss of everything at the ¾ mark.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “It’s not the dragon I’m worried about.” “I’m not one of them”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
 Ride new dragons to save them all.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
 He devises the rescue plan.
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
 His father attacks before he can de-escalate things.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
 Every single character is at the climax.
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
 He reconciles with his father in the middle of the final battle.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
 He is accepted by the village and is physically transformed.
PART #4: SCENEWORK (Selected scene: Hiccup and his students are in an arena competing to defeat a dragon, but Hiccup is quizzing their instructor to find out how to better commune with his own dragon, Toothless. Along the way, he uses what he learned from Toothless to peacefully subdue the dragon they’re fighting, infuriating the others.)  19/20
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
 Hiccup just read a book on all the ways dragons can kill you. The other kids were bragging the night before about how they were going to kick ass.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
 Battle is already underway.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
 Very much so, they’re in a collapsing arena with a deadly dragon. 
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
 Nobody wants to have the conversation Hiccup wants to have.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
 Snortlout’s crush, etc.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
 Hiccup must get answers before this dragon can kill him.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
 Primarily plot for Hiccup, but reveals character for others.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
 We want Hiccup to get the information he wants (but we also share Astrid’s frustration with him.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
 Hiccup wants to find out how to befriend a dragon, everybody else wants to kill one.
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
 Surface: defeat this dragon. Suppressed: Crushes are pursued, Hiccup’s secret agenda, his rivalry with Astrid.
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
 Flirting through fighting, fighting through flirting.
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
 Hiccup pretends to still hate dragons,  Snortlout is cagy about his crush on Astrid, Astrid might have feelings for Hiccup.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
 Hiccup openly asks about Night Furies, Snortlout tries to pick up Astrid covertly, everybody tries to outsmart the dragons (look for blind spots, etc.)
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
 Tons of reblocking and just one touch between Astrid and Hiccup, when she falls on him then pushes his face away
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
 Astrid’s ax gets disabled by Hiccup’s shield, which foreshadows the larger plot.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
 The instructor reluctantly answers Hiccup’s questions in order to get him to move out of harm’s way.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
 He’s trying not to fight, but he’s the one that defeats the dragon.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
 Previous: We learn more about night furies. We realize that Astrid knows Snortlout likes her and doesn’t return feelings.  New: How to learn about night furies now that hopes of book learning are dashed?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
 Cuts away on a question, not an answer.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
 Not really. Things haven’t gotten much better or worse for the hero in this scene. He attempted to find out more and failed.
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
 We empathize with every person on each side and with each dragon, except the last one, and even his actions are understandable.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
 Astrid helps him not because she’s dedicated to soothing him, but because she demands to know how he stole her thunder.
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
 The father and son are wonderfully inarticulate in their discussion.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
 Training is mostly silent, explanations are always insufficient and self-serving.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
 Very much so.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
 Believably re-creates the feeling of basic training.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor family: Fishlegs: role-playing-gamer, Trainer: old fisherman, Default personality trait: Dad: macho-stern, Astrid, macho-annoyed, each of the kids has their own., Argument strategy: Dad: brooks no opposition. Astrid: nails your hypocrisy.
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
 When with the group, Hiccup is heart, Fishlegs is head (he cites statistics), and the other four kids are all gut.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
Yes, at sunset.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
 There’s a voiceover info-dump at the beginning to introduce the bizarre world, but it describes each aspect as it plays its part in a big battle, piquing our interest about each one as it’s explained. From that point, the additional exposition dribbles out.  
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
 Lots, actually: the last two scenes with father and son, two scenes with Astrid.
PART #6: TONE 10/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
 Action-Comedy / Heroic Fantasy
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
 Boot camp / coming-of-age
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
 They win the big battle but they also make peace. Hiccup wins but he also loses his foot.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
 A delicate but successful mix of scary, fun, morally serious, and snarky. The finale is surprisingly funny and scary at the same time. Established quickly by the contrast between dark, violent imagery of first scene and kid-friendly voice-over. People will die violently, but maybe not people we care about. (though they may be maimed)
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
 Where is the nest?
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
 Just a little bit of voiceover.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
 Lots of people with missing body parts, etc.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
 The nature of the Night Fury, the nest, the injury, are all foreshadowed excellently.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
 “You just said all of me” which will be reversed later.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
 Hiccup finds the nest halfway, but the rest find it at the end.
PART 7: THEME 12/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
 Victory vs. peace-making, justice vs. family loyalty
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
 “What does it mean to win?” is the implied question.
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 He keeps finding ways to avoid fighting the dragons without fighting his community.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
 The costs of war and of peacemaking are both well-portrayed, as well as the nature of disability.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
 Despite the extremely bizarre setting, it feels authentic to both the Scottish and Viking aspects of its imaginary world.
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
 There are lots of parallels with the “War on Terror”
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
 Yes, by fudging it, they make peace with all the dragons but one. Also, disability is treated honestly, which is almost never the case in movies.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
 Hiccup chooses to fight and loses a foot! Dragon cannot overcome his disability without help.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 He must make peace with each dragon, with Astrid, with his dad, etc…
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
 The mom’s helmet, the prosthesis, etc.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimately irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 Justice is ultimately more important than loyalty to family, but it’s an impossible choice so the two must be reconciled. The other dilemma is split: They’re able to make peace with most, but have to kill the one who won’t make peace.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
 Very much so. The opening dragon attack is paralleled by the final peaceful shots of dragons flying through the village.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
 Hmm… It’s pretty tidy.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
 By knocking Hiccup out for the denouement, we skip the actual rapprochement between the Vikings and the dragons, but there’s still a lot of talk about what it all means.

Final Score: 112 out of 122

Storyteller’s Rulebook #83: Sometimes Winning Isn’t Enough

I’ve talked before about how helpful it is to start a character off with a false goal, then gradually have them discover their true goal. Usually, this happens when heroes fail utterly halfway through, making it clear to them that the only way out of their misery is to better understand what their true goal should be. But it can be even more satisfying to have your character succeed beyond their wildest dreams, only to realize that it’s an empty feeling, and so they have to set their sights on something greater.
This is a trickier proposition. In most stories, morality (what is the right thing to do?) and ethics (how do I do this thing right?) are aligned: Immoral characters tend to be unethical too, and vice versa. In such stories, learning to do it better is the same thing as becoming a better person.
But movies like How to Train Your Dragon create a more ironic learning curve. When the movie begins, all Hiccup wants, and all the audience wants to see him do, is to become a great dragon fighter and earn the praise of his tribe, which seems impossible. Amazingly, he achieves the impossible rather quickly by studying the dragons and figuring out how they tick, but in doing so he also comes to realize that they’re not actually evil…This results in deliciously ironic scenes halfway through where he is finally showered with all the praise that he’s ever wanted. He wants to be happy, and the audience wants to be happy for him… but it’s not happening. He’s grown and we’ve grown. The rewards he earns through his superior work ethic aren’t satisfying, because both Hiccup and the audience have had their moral horizons expanded.
Most storytellers simply dangle a prize in front in front of the audience like a cat toy, making us want to see a certain outcome at the beginning, then yanking it away over and over again until they finally gratify us at the end. And that’s fine. But great storytellers can make us reconsider our values and grow along with the hero.
Okay folks! That’s it! As much as I love this movie, I am sick of it! Next week: actual adult movies! Very adult! Porn week! Well, okay, maybe I won’t go that far…


Storyteller’s Rulebook #82: Training Sequences are Death (Or At Least They Should Be)

High school shows are always popular, but most TV shows about college life fail. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, most American haven’t been to college, so there’s a lot fewer people who can identify with it. But that’s not the biggest problem. College, even more than high school, is designed to be super-safe. It’s a self-selected community that doesn’t have to take all comers, so it’s a lot homier, and the students are far more concerned about being reasonable and establishing “safe spaces.”

But safe spaces, as I’ve discussed before, are death for drama. Realistic characters, left to their own devices, will stay safe, physically and emotionally. This leaves a writer with two choices: create dumb characters who blunder into danger, or put realistic characters in the sort of situations that would believably take them out of their comfort zones.

This is why training sequences, in any sort of movie, tend to be dull. In real life, a properly-designed training program should be a safe space, but that kills the jeaopardy. Kung Fu Panda was a fun movie, but they spend most of the movie in a rather pleasant training program, so there’s no physical jeopardy until the very end. There’s social jeopardy, but when your movie has “kung fu” in the title, people expect a little more.
How to Train Your Dragon is another movie with a lot of training sequences, but they manage to convince us that the training sequence are genuinely dangerous: kids are forced to fight against untamed dragons who genuinely seem to want to kill them. To make this believable, they have to convince us that the problem is so severe that the villagers would actually be willing to kill off kids who can’t cut it.
This is set up by showing a harrowing-but-typical dragon attack at the beginning and making it clear that the life expectancy is very low. We don’t see a lot of bodies but we do see a lot of stumps for limbs. We get that these kids have to get tough, even if a few die in the process. Once we accept that, we can fully enjoy the training sequences, content in the knowledge that the stakes are high and death is always on the line.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #81: Dare To Confront the Great Hypocrisy

Almost all heroic fiction is founded on the same Great Hypocrisy: “See that guy over there? He thinks that the best way to solve his problems is by killing people! That’s makes him a problem, so let’s kill him!” Explain to me again who the bad guy is here? In the real world, thankfully, meeting violence with violence is most often seen as a tragic last resort, but onscreen we aren’t satisfied until the villain has been turned into chopped liver. Watching people solve their problems through democratic action is boooring.

When we watch movies about would-be peacemakers, like Destry Rides Again, we root for them, but we don’t really want them to see them succeed, because watching everybody put down their guns and go home would just be... you know… lame.

So how can you avoid the Great Hypocrisy and yet still have a satisfying ending? Simple: you cheat. You can allow your heroes to make peace with the enemy army if you give that army a really evil, heretofore unrevealed, boss. The most famous example of this was Star Wars. In order to redeem Vader, Lucas cleverly brought in the Emperor late in the game. Otherwise, the trilogy would have had to end on a hug and no fight.

I grew up on the Star Wars trilogy and that pretty much ruined me for other sagas. That became my standard for greatness: morally serious heroes should seek to redeem the villain, not kill him. Thus, I was inevitably disappointed by the endings of “Lord of the Rings”, “Harry Potter”, “Lost”… any saga that tossed around heady issues but, in the end, came down to “happy ending = kill the villain”
So you can imagine how happy I was about (you guessed it) How to Train Your Dragon. As I watched it, I was thinking, “Gee they’ve been training all this time for a big dragon battle, but now they’ve got us rooting for our hero to make peace with the dragons instead. If that happens, it’ll be admirable, sure, but won’t that feel kinda unsatisfying?” But then, halfway through, we find out that the dragons have a big nasty boss, and I smiled... “They’re going to make peace with every dragon… except that guy.” Is it a cheat? Sure. But it’s a good way to satisfy both our higher moral sensibilities and our need to see a little ass-kicking.


Storyteller’s Rulebook #80: Real Disabilities Aren’t Personality Flaws

This is a tricky one, because it seems to blatantly contradict a previous rule of mine. In that case, I praised Steve Moffat for giving Watson’s mental affliction a temporary physical manifestation in his adaptation of “A Study in Scarlet”. But I should have made it clear then that this trick only works if you’ve make it very clear from the beginning that the problem is psychosomatic. What doesn’t work is when characters clearly have a real medical diagnosis, and then they “rise up” though an attitude adjustment and shirk off their disability. That’s just plain insulting, both to actual disabled people and to your audience.

One of the most noxious examples of this was in Forrest Gump, where it tied into the movie’s overall gooey tone, but it happens all the time onscreen. Even Up, which I loved, lost a lot of my respect right at the very end… If you watch the end credits closely, you’ll see that final photo montage implies that Carl doesn’t need his walker anymore now that he’s got a better attitude. Really?

Writers love to load their heroes down with challenges, and then they love to show how their heroes cleverly overcome those challenges, but you can’t cheat. Don’t give your hero a serious disability unless you’re willing to accept the long-term consequences of that.

How to Train Your Dragon is a great movie about disability (another element not in the book). In the beginning, a young Viking, Hiccup, uses a catapult to shoot down a dragon, then goes to finish him off, but can’t bring himself to do it. The dragon tries to fly away, but can’t, because he lost one of his vital tail fins in the attack, permanently disabling him and stranding him in a valley-bottom that he can’t lift himself out of.

Hiccup can’t stand to see the dragon starve, but rather than simply bring him food for life, or, even worse, tell him that he can fly out of there if he simply believes in himself, Hiccup finds a realistic solution: he invents a prosthetic that will allow the dragon to fly as long as he has a human pilot. The dragon’s slow, grudging acceptance of his disability and newfound dependence on a human is remarkably affecting, because the writers never cheat.

Rather than the “if you can believe it, you can achieve it” mentality of most kids movies, this is a movie about finding strength through acceptance of limitations. At the end of the movie, (SPOILER) Hiccup and the dragon save both of their tribes, but Hiccup loses his own foot in the effort. The prosthetic that replaces it is one specifically made to work in conjunction with the dragon’s prosthetic. Hiccup doesn’t mind too much, because he’s already learned that more can be accomplished through interdependence than independence. That’s a tough but true lesson that most movies don’t dare teach.