Rulebook Casefile: Unique Relationships in “Born a Crime”

So we’ve talked about how Trevor Noah creates the classic archetype of the scampish kid, and he also taps into the universal archetype of the indomitable bad-ass single mom. Each character has lots of specifics to make them come alive, but they’re definitely characters we recognize from other stories. But that’s fine, because, as I’ve said before, readers don’t actually crave unique never-before-seen characters. We like archetypes. But while we don’t demand unique characters, we do like them to combine into unique never-before-seen relationships.

Anyone who’s seen “Gilmore Girls” or other similar stories will recognize the idea of a single mom and child who interact as almost-equals, but never quite like Trevor Noah and his mom. Here’s their conversation from the first chapter of his book (It is always dubious, of course, when a memoir recreates this much dialogue, but readers are forgiving.)

  • “It’s the Devil,” she said about the stalled car. “The Devil doesn’t want us to go to church. That’s why we’ve got to catch minibuses.”
  • Whenever I found myself up against my mother’s faith-based obstinacy, I would try, as respectfully as possible, to counter with an opposing point of view.
  • “Or,” I said, “the Lord knows that today we shouldn’t go to church, which is why he made sure the car wouldn’t start, so that we stay at home as a family and take a day of rest, because even the Lord rested.”
  • “Ah, that’s the Devil talking, Trevor.”
  • “No, because Jesus is in control, and if Jesus is in control and we pray to Jesus, he would let the car start, but he hasn’t, therefore—”
  • “No, Trevor! Sometimes Jesus puts obstacles in your way to see if you overcome them. Like Job. This could be a test.”
  • “Ah! Yes, Mom. But the test could be to see if we’re willing to accept what has happened and stay at home and praise Jesus for his wisdom.”
  • “No. That’s the Devil talking. Now go change your clothes.”
  • “But, Mom!”
  • “Trevor! Sun’qhela!”
  • Sun’qhela is a phrase with many shades of meaning. It says “don’t undermine me,” “don’t underestimate me,” and “just try me.” It’s a command and a threat, all at once. It’s a common thing for Xhosa parents to say to their kids. Any time I heard it I knew it meant the conversation was over, and if I uttered another word I was in for a hiding—what we call a spanking.

(This is of course a trick that screenwriters don’t have, jumping in to unpack the hidden meanings behind one word.)

Both characters have unique voices and strong opinions. Together they have a complex, shifting power dynamic. Either character on their own could probably carry the story, but it’s their contentious but loving relationship that will really power the book. Compelling characters are great, but compelling relationships are even better.
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Have at Least Six Painful Decisions: The Archive


Hi guys, I continue to dig through old posts looking for stuff for a new book and re-discovered this forgotten micro-series that I like a lot. The Checklist is set in stone now that it’s in a book, but I can’t figure out why this question never made it onto the list, and I wish I could add it now. Ah well.


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Best of 2018 , #2: Black Panther (and Rise Above Your Genre’s Limitations)

Black Panther begins with an exhilarating scene: On the verge of becoming king of Wakanda, T’Challa invites anyone who wishes to challenge his right to rule to fight him unarmed. A giant named M’Baku steps up, and the two have a thrilling fight in a waterfall. Our hero, though smaller, fights better, proves his physical superiority, and earns the right to rule.

But then, halfway through the movie, Killmonger comes along and demands his own challenge. They go back to the waterfall, where he turns out to be a better fighter and seemingly throws T’Challa to his death. Killmonger then becomes king and Black Panther.

And here’s the thing, it must have been so tempting for the filmmakers to have Killmonger cheat in that big fight. That’s how they did in the perfectly fine cartoon version, after all. That’s the way superhero movies are supposed to go: might makes right, and the heroes are going to win any fair fight.

But the filmmakers rose above that temptation. Killmonger wins fair and square. The kingdom is rightfully his.

There’s just one problem: That’s a really messed-up way to choose the leader of your country. FDR was maybe America’s greatest president, and he wouldn’t have fared very well in that waterfall. Many people have noted that superhero movies have a fascism problem. This movie tackles that head on. They get us to root for the hero to rule in a fascistic “punch your enemies into submission” way, then remind us that that’s all kind of messed up.

In the end, T’Challa never goes back to that waterfall. There is no third unarmed fight. He doesn’t contest that the first fight wasn’t fair. He takes his country back by using every trick in his book. And once he’s back in charge, he starts making some changes in how things are done. This movie confronts the genre’s fascism problem, and the result is the biggest-grossing and most acclaimed superhero movie of all time.

People go to genre movies to experience familiar genre pleasures, and they come prepared to forgive your genre’s inherent flaws.  But sometimes, if you’re sure that your movie is wildly entertaining, then you can try to confront those flaws and rise above the limitations that have held back your genre from Best Picture status.
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Best of 2018, #3: Vice (and Who Has the Right to Tell a Story?)

A lot of people were shocked this was nominated for Best Picture, because the reviews weren’t great, but if you look at my previous Best Of lists, you’ll see a lot of McKay, Bale, Adams and Carrell, so you can’t be too surprised to see this here, can you? I don’t know what those bad reviews were talking about because I loved it.

And there was nothing I loved more about the movie than the opening title card:

  • The following is a true story.
  • Or as true as it can be given that Dick Cheney is one of the most secretive leaders in history.
  • But we did our fucking best.

One of my problems with BlacKkKlansman is that it falls into a trap I’ve talked about before. In order to make a movie about the Klan in the ‘70s, the filmmakers just waited until someone walked in the door with a self-aggrandizing memoir. Then they had to turn an “I prank called David Duke” anecdote into a whole movie.

But movies should tell true stories that need to be told, not just tales on the periphery of history that a self-promoter wants to push. This is much harder to do, but the makers of Vice did their fucking best. Neither Dick nor Lynne Cheney were pushing McKay and company to tell this story, but enough of the facts were out there that they could get the job done.

I did a whole series many years ago on the question of who has the right to tell a story. Do you have the right to make a biopic about someone who doesn’t want their story told? For that matter, do liberals have the right to make movies about conservative protagonists? I think that one way you earn that right is to show empathy for your enemies, even the very worst of them, and this movie does that well. My heart leapt when Cheney almost-instantly told his daughter he didn’t have a problem with her being gay. That was the moment of actual heroism that McKay was able to find in Cheney’s life, and the movie would never have worked without it. That was the moment that McKay earned the right to tell this story: He found humanity within his anti-hero, and celebrated it.

You don’t have the right to tell a story about any protagonist, fictional or otherwise, if you can’t empathize with them at any point. If McKay took the attitude that Cheney was simply inhuman, the movie wouldn’t have worked. It wouldn’t have been convincing, it wouldn’t have been tragic, and it wouldn’t have been ironic. That’s the difference between an anti-hero and a villain: A good anti-hero must have the potential of redemption, and fail to achieve it.
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The Ten Urges That Stories Can Satisfy

Hi guys! Sorry, I’d meant to do another book before Christmas but time has gotten away from me. Instead, let’s just have one big blow-out December post. I’ve talked about urges in the past, but recently, in giving someone notes, I had to get more specific about what I was talking about, so I came up with a possibly-complete list of the ten urges that stories can satisfy. Most stories should satisfy 3-6 of these (though Rushmore seems to only do two).

  • To Laugh (Comedy, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from a dose of humor. It’s easier to identify with funny heroes. Funny sidekicks, love interests, and even villains can also increase our enjoyment of a story. On the flip side, laughing at a hero or side kick’s foibles, bad luck, or cluelessness can also bond us to them, since it gives us permission to laugh at our own failings.

  • To Gasp (Thriller, Horror, Action)

We gasp when things are shocking or horrific. This can also be referred to the “edge of your seat” quality.

  • To Swoon (Romance, everything else)

We want to share a hero’s romantic hopes and fears. We want to share their yearning, to have that yearning thwarted painfully, perversely punished, and finally gratified (or tragically thwarted once and for all, which brings us to our next urge…)

  • To Cry (Romance, Tragedy, Drama)

We cry when things are tragic. Things are most tragic when they’re bitterly ironic. When the hero simply fails despite their best efforts, that’s just a bummer, not tragic. When they fail because of their best efforts, or realize they must choose to fail, the tears come.

  • To Dread (Thriller, Drama, Tragedy)

The deepening sinking sensation that something awful is going to happen is perversely pleasurable for an audience, all the better if we’re not exactly sure what form the disaster will take.

  • To Speculate (Science Fiction, Fantasy)

Sci-fi and fantasy are very different, but most fans of one are also fans of the other, albeit less so. They both offer the thrill of escapism: to imagine a world wildly different from our own and to wonder at possibilities we’ve never considered (which gives us the hope that maybe more things are possible here.)

  • To Puzzle (Mystery, everything else)

Almost every story can benefit from adding a big mystery and/or a series of satisfying mini-mysteries to solve along the way. Sometimes we’re solving the mysteries alongside the hero, sometimes they’re only mysteries to the audience.

  • To Burn (Historical Fiction, Drama)

Can one “enjoy” a movie like 12 Years a Slave? On some odd level, yes, because it’s pleasurable to burn with righteous indignation at the sight of injustice. 

  • To Lust (Romance, everything else)

This frequently but not always overlaps with swooning. We like to be turned on. In books, we mostly just lust in sex and seduction scenes, but in movies we can have the visual pleasure of sexiness onscreen in every scene.

  • To Cheer (Action, some Horror)

Once we’ve gasped, we want to release that tension by cheering. In horror, this only comes at the end, but in action stories we get lots of chances to cheer throughout. Any genre can have “stand up and cheer” moments.

And now here are two massive charts. Above, you’ll find one for the books we’ve looked at (It’s good that I have enough data to start some crunching!) and below you’ll find one for the movies we’ve looked at:

What do you guys think? Are there any urges I’ve missed? Do you disagree about the urges these stories fulfill?
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Best of 2017, #1: Lady Bird


What a wonderful film.  Our top two movies are so similar: Both were created by performers who weren’t known as writers or directors but both turned out to be geniuses in disguise.  It makes you wonder who else is sitting on hidden talents.  Some old rules this reminded me of:

Begin When the Problem Becomes Undeniable, End When It’s Resolved: What is the story of this movie? If I was describing it to someone, I would probably say “It’s the story of a girl’s senior year of high school,” so the most obvious structure would be to begin with an aerial shot of the kids entering school on the first day and end on another aerial shot of her flying off for college, but the movie is smarter than that.

This is a movie with several plotlines, but Gerwig knows she has to choose one storyline to predominate, begin the movie when that problem becomes undeniable, and end when it resolves. Gerwig probably could have structured the movie around Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend, or her attempts to lose her virginity, but she ultimately decided that the conflict with the mom was the emotional heart of the movie, so she begins a little bit before the school year (iirc) with the moment that relationship becomes open warfare, and then she actually keeps the story going a little bit into college to find the moment when that storyline resolves itself, because Lady Bird has to go away to get some perspective on their relationship.

The Trailer Scene: So let’s talk about the opening scene, because it’s a great example of a “Holy Crap” moment that’s necessary to make a trailer work. The movie is a low-key coming of age story, and those are notoriously hard to sell. The trailer does include the best moment in the movie, when Lady Bird asks her mom, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” and her mom gives her that wonderful look, but that’s not really a great trailer moment. Even if your movie is very realistic, it’s good to have one moment that strains that realism to the breaking point to put a moment of outrageousness in the trailer, and jumping out of the car while her mom is driving is a perfect example. It’s not so extreme that it would make the news, but it’s definitely nothing the characters will ever forget.

I know that for me, jumping out got a big laugh when I saw the trailer and made me want to see the movie. It assured me that this wouldn’t be that kind of movie (which is to say, the kind of movie Gerwig usually stars in), too low key to care about, or too cool for school. It assured me: This is going to be a comedy, and you’ll be allowed to laugh.

Reversible reversible behavior. But this is a realistic movie, and it’s going to also score points by undermining our traditional narrative expectations in favor of greater realism. One great little moment: Whenever a character, especially a teen character, insists on an alias, we also await the moment when they drop the façade and admit their real name, because that’s classic reversible behavior, and sure enough this movie delivers that moment when Lady Bird is at her first college party, but then it wonderfully undercuts that breakthrough. She admits her name, but then the boy asks her where she’s from and she panics and lies. One step forward, one step back. This is what we want out of realistic movies: clever subversion of tropes in a way that makes us think, “Finally a movie that’s willing to show how it really is!”
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How to Evaluate a Story Idea: The Archive

These posts formed a lot of the backbone of the book, but it’s interesting to check out their original form, and there’s a lot here that didn’t make it into the book’s slimmed-down narrative.

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Best of 2016, #9: Arrival (Tease Your Twist)

Once again, I’ll start with what didn’t work:

The Problem: Most of the conflict in this movie is false conflict. We start with a very familiar sci-fi situation: Aliens have landed and the scientists want to communicate while the military doesn’t trust them. We’ve seen this a million times before, but this time the situation is tilted too far in the scientists’ direction. It’s way to obvious to us, and it should be obvious to them, that these aliens are super nice guys, but we still get scene after scene of the military freaking out needlessly. Meanwhile, we get a very cool story of watching a linguist decode this language, but the film doesn’t trust this story enough to carry the movie (and they may be right about that). (The most obvious example of false conflict is the fact that the military doesn’t warn Adams or Renner that gravity is about to realign itself. Why not give them a heads up on that? Just to give us and them a little false shock.)

The Meddler: The aliens needed to be even more alien, to the extent that they’re accidentally killing people, either by simply crushing them, or by emitting sounds that split eardrums, or by frying them with force fields, etc. This would up the stakes considerably. Now Adams would be putting her life at risk by entering this ship belonging to these aliens that can’t stop killing people, maybe accidentally, maybe not. Now the military would have a good reason to just wipe these people off the map and the scientists would have a much harder job to do convincing the military that no, these deaths were accidental and we just need to learn to communicate. Then the communication breakthrough would be far more consequential.

What I Liked About It: The performances, the tone, the science, and especially the whopper of a twist.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Tease your twist. A great twist can’t just land like a rock on the head of your audience. As with a murder mystery, you need to “play fair”, laying in a series of clues: Not that your audience wants to necessarily guess the twist before the reveal, but they want to feel like they could have and maybe should have. The beauty of this twist is that it’s teased out and revealed so gradually that you’re on the cusp of figuring it out about a half-hour before it finally hits you, which feels so gratifying. As soon as I heard Adams say “Your father’s the scientist”, I began to figure it out somewhere in the back of my brain, but that only meant it hit with more force, not less, when it was finally revealed.
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The Big Idea, Addendum: The Ironic Conclusion

Yesterday we looked at the need for an Ironic Concept. When identifying your ironic concept, it’s tempting to look to the ending and show how the story is ultimately ironic in the end, but you can’t wait that long to tap into the power of irony. The ironic concept should be evident by the halfway point, and then the finale needs to be ironic in a fresh way. Let’s data-mine our checklists:
  • Casablanca: He shows his love by sending her away.
  • Sunset Boulevard: He gets that pool he always wanted
  • In a Lonely Place: He didn’t do it, but loses her anyway.
  • Alien: She blows up the ship only to discover that he’s on the escape pod.
  • The Shining: The son must kill his father to save his family.
  • Blue Velvet: He defeats evil by absorbing it.
  • Silence of the Lambs: One killer is stopped but the worse one gets away in the process.
  • Groundhog Day: He finally figures out how to get out of there: by wanting to stay.
  • Donnie Brasco: He finally gets to go home but feels like he’s more lost than ever.
  • The Bourne Identity: He discovers that he was home the whole time: with Marie. (In his commentary, Liman says that he saw the movie as having a Wizard of Oz structure)
  • Sideways: Miles finds that the way to get the girl is the have the courage to do nothing, waiting for her to re-approach instead of drunk dialing her.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The village is once again overrun with dragons, but in a good way.
  • Iron Man: His partner turns out to be the villain.
  • An Education: She realizes that was she feared was exactly what she needed.
  • Bridesmaids: Her archenemy helps her get her guy.
There are, of course, many more ironies in between as well. In the next three posts, we’ll look at the pros and cons of Ironic Dialogue...
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