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.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #79: Mentors are Overrated

Last week, I tried to do a simple think piece on Harry Potter so that I could ease back into blogging along with my new baby duties. Instead two things happened: a) I got my most readers ever, and b) I turned the pieces into epics in response. As a result, if you look to the calendar to your right, you’ll see that I did no actual writing. This week, I’ll follow up on some of the same ideas as last week, but limit my discussion to one movie so that I can stay sane and productive!
When I chose my top five Hollywood movies of 2010, I hadn’t seen everything from that year yet. Case in point: How To Train Your Dragon got good reviews and a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination, but I still assumed it was skip-able. But when I finally saw it: Wow! I would go so far as to say that this may be the best damned fantasy movie of all time!

This is a beautiful, meaningful, inspiring action/fantasy/coming-of-age epic! As soon as I saw it, I thought, “Damn, I could get five Storyteller’s Rulebook entries out of this thing. So this week, that’s just what I’m going to do. (And for those of you sick of children’s fantasy, I promise that next week I’ll return to more adult fare!)

Storyteller’s Rulebook #79: Mentors are Overrated

Last week, I did a lot of griping about Dumbledore. In fact, I love the old guy, and he did more good for that series than harm, but even a very well-written mentor can get a series in trouble. Everything mentors do makes it harder for the audience to bond with a hero: they give the hero knowledge, rather than letting them learn it on their own; they protect the hero from failure, rather than making them learn the hard way; they usually have the ability to do the job better than the hero would, making us wonder why the hero even needs to show up.
All-loving, all-knowing, all-powerful mentors like Dumbledore, Obi Wan and Gandalf are the most problematic. In the scenes between the hero and such a mentor, where is the conflict? Where is the difficulty? Where is the heroic struggle? Once you’ve created such a mentor, you have to instantly look for ways to yank them away from the hero as often as possible.
Flawed mentors are less of a problem: Mr. Miyagi loved Daniel-San deep down, but he was sarcastic, rude and ornery, giving their scenes a lot of bite. Giles grew to love Buffy, but she never wanted to do things his way. Since she alone had the power and he had nothing but knowledge, they were in a constant tug of war as to whose methods would prevail.
But How to Train Your Dragon simply shows that young hero stories don’t necessarily need mentors at all. Nobody tells Hiccup to make peace with the dragons, he just does it. The writers create a situation in which he gets to see a different side of the dragons and so, with much trepidation, he follows his good instincts until he finds himself doing something heroic. No prophecy. No advice. Nobody telling him that he should believe in himself. He just rises to the occasion when the time comes. Doesn’t that sound better?
(Interestingly, this wasn’t true of the book. Every choice they made in this adaptation seemingly made the movie harder to write: they took away the mentor, took away Hiccup’s confidant among his fellow students, and took away the dragons’ ability to talk! Those are the sort of things that play-it-safe screenwriters usually add, since they all gave the hero more opportunities to vocalize his problems. But the best computer animated movies have started to re-embrace the power of silent movies —Wall-E, the beginning of Up, the dragon training sequences here— and each of these challenging choices made this movie stronger than the book.)