Rulebook Casefile: Big Decisions and the Midpoint Disaster

We’ve spent the week discussing the rule that every story should have six painful decisions, spaced out fairly evenly throughout the story. (I’ve decided that it should definitely be “decisions” and not “dilemmas”, because dilemmas don’t imply action, and the story is stronger if the hero is forced to act in these situations.)

Yesterday, a commenter asked about how these painful decisions mapped onto the midpoint disasters that most stories have. (Of the 17 checklist movies we’ve done, only two, Do the Right Thing and How to Train Your Dragon, don’t really have midpoint disasters) The answer is that it varies. Usually the disaster is not the result of a poor decision, and even when it is, it tends to be a decision that the hero did not see as painful when he or she made it.

In many, the disaster is the consequence of a correct-but-poorly-executed decision:
  • Alien: The captain is killed while trying to kill the alien.
  • Casablanca: Rick’s club is trashed because he helped Victor
  • In Raising Arizona, the disaster comes after one of Hi’s only right decisions: the rejection of his brother-in-law’s wife-swapping plan.
  • The Shining: Danny and then Jack investigate Room 237
  • Donnie Brasco: Donnie’s wife changes her number because he’s too far in to call her.
  • Sunset Boulevard: Joe arrives home from going out with Betty to find that Norma has attempted suicide.
  • Star Wars: The Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star while trying to reach Alderaan.
In some, it’s the consequence of a weak decision that was casually made, rather than painfully fretted over:
  • Iron Man: Tony finds out he was wrong to blindly trust Stane
  • Bridesmaids: Annie’s attempts to please everybody lead to a series of personal disasters.
In some it takes the form of an early-but-unheeded spiritual crisis:
  • An Education: Jenny finds out that they’re all crooks, but accepts that.
  • Blue Velvet: Jeffrey hits Dorothy.
  • Another from Donnie Brasco: Donny beats up the maître/d.
In one, it’s an external betrayal:
  • Silence of the Lambs: Clarice and her boss are taken off the case because Chilton tells Lecter that she’s been lying to him.
In another, a wrong track comes to its bitter end:
  • Groundhog Day: Phil’s attempts to seduce Rita fail over and over.
In another, a hero wisely abandons an unsafe space:
  • The Bourne Identity: Jason decides to abandon his investigation and leave Paris with Marie in.
Only Sideways has what I would consider to be a clear case of a hero who faces a painful dilemma (Move on from his wife or close the deal with Maya), clearly chooses wrong, and finds out that the results are even more disastrous than he had counted on.

Next week: A new checklist!

Genre Structures, Addendum: Charting the Big Dilemmas

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:

An Education:
  1. W: Accept the come-on? Yes.
  2. W: Lie to her parents and go to Oxford with him? Yes.
  3. W: Agree to ignore his crimes? Yes.
  4. W: Have sex with him? Yes.
  5. W: Accept the marriage proposal? Yes.
  6. 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:
  1. R: Speak to the lady at the Embassy? No.
  2. R: Climb down the wall? Yes.
  3. R: Trust Marie? Yes.
  4. R: Continue investigating his past after they discover bad things? No.
  5. R: Leave Marie and return to Paris? Yes.
  6. R: Kill Conklin? No.
Horror movies tend to have a series of wrong decisions followed by a series of right decisions:

  1. W: Answer the distress signal? Yes.
  2. W: Break quarantine? Yes.
  3. W: Remove the face-hugger or not? No. (To be fair, they can’t figure out how)
  4. R: Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? Kill it.
  5. R: Blow up the whole ship to kill it? Yes.
  6. 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:
  1. R: Come home to help with the store? Yes.
  2. U: Pick up the ear? Yes.
  3. U: Investigate it outside the law? Yes.
  4. W: What to do when Dorothy finds him there? Have sex with her.
  5. W: Hit her when she asks him to? Yes.
  6. R: Finally tell Sandy everything when Dorothy shows up? Yes.
  7. U: Go confront Frank? Yes.
But then a seemingly straightforward movie like Iron Man gets a lot of ‘U’s, too:
  1. R: Agree to build the weapons for the terrorists or let himself be shot? He pretends to agree under false pretense.
  2. U: Let Shinzen sacrifice himself so he can escape? Yes.
  3. R: Get back into the arms business? No.
  4. W: Trust his partner? Yes.
  5. U: Take the next step with Pepper she makes herself vulnerable at the fundraiser? Not yet.
  6. 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.

    Storyteller’s Rulebook: Have At Least Six Painful Decisions

    My new big-deal manager gushed about how much he loved my horror-thriller in order to keep me from signing with another guy, but then as soon as he had locked me down, he told me that he wouldn’t actually send it out because, “Eh, at some point, the story all runs downhill.” Huh? What does that mean? But no clarification was forthcoming. I’ve tried to grasp his point ever since.

    Here’s my best interpretation: the hero is fighting the villain, but neither one is really surprising us anymore. The story is locked onto a certain trajectory: there are still lots of exciting things going on, and near-death scrapes, and clever escapes, but these are all obstacles, they aren’t really conflicts. They’re hard to do, but not hard to want to do.

    I’ve never stopped struggling with this. Surely, at some point, the hero can finally figure out what to do, right? I realize that the whole story can’t be a straightforward struggle of good vs. evil and still be interesting, but can’t we at least have the players sorted our properly in the final act?

    As I’ve redone the 17 stand-alone-story checklists, I’ve focused in on one of the new questions: Does the hero have to face several smaller good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad decisions throughout your story. As I’ve been adding these up, I’ve thought about changing to the wording to “Does the hero face at least six tough good-vs.-good or bad-vs.-bad dilemmas spaced out throughout the story” (In screenplay terms, that would be about 15-20 pages.)

    The audience wants to play along at home. To a certain extent, watching a hero overcome obstacles is like watching someone else play a videogame, which can be a dreadful experience. When you watch a hero overcome a physical challenge, you might think, “Ooh, I know what I what I would do in that situation,”, but there’s never a satisfying pay-off to that: Either they do what you would have done, and you’re mildly gratified, or they don’t, and you just get frustrated.

    What the audience really wants to say is “Ooh, I don’t know what I what I would do in that situation!” Even better is when they follow that up with, “…and I don’t want to know.” That’s when they really start playing along at home.

    Let’s look at Alien:
    1. Answer the distress signal? (Risk our lives to help people we haven’t met?)
    2. Break quarantine? (Risk all of our lives for one friend’s life?)
    3. Remove the face-hugger or not? (Risk killing our friend in order to save him?)
    4. Kill the alien or try to preserve it for the company? (Risk our ability to make a living for personal safety?)
    5. Blow up the whole ship to kill it? (Destroy everything we’ve done for personal safety)
    6. Go back for the cat? (Risk my life to save a small creature?)
    The dilemmas just keep on coming, and they’re all questions that we wouldn’t want to answer ourselves. And they keep going right up to the end. What if we didn’t have that tough last-minute decision? What if the final act had all been a gung-ho woman-vs.-alien struggle without any more painful dilemmas? It would be inert.

    I briefly posted and then postponed a version of this post a few days ago, but a commenter had already said that saving the cat always annoyed him, because it seemed to contribute to the deaths in future films. To me, that only shows the value of the dilemma: you can never be sure if it was worth it, even years later. 

    Next time, let’s look at what we can learn about genre structure from looking at the six impossible dilemmas.