Wednesday, August 30, 2017

What I’ve Learned About How to Tell a Story

My name is Dave, and for the past twenty-eight years I’ve distinguished myself as the worst, most stubbornly insufferable storyteller I know. It’s true. I started writing crap back in 1989, when my drunk economics adviser and I discovered that my transcript was lacking exactly one liberal studies elective and the only class still open was a contemporary fiction workshop. As these things often do, that one course inspired me to start writing crap--since which time I've hardly missed a day, writing more crap. I've published one short story (a broken narrative full of unnamed antagonists and weird POV-changes that doesn't make sense even to me), and one narrative non-fiction piece that was run as a filler at the back of a magazine that isn't even in business anymore. Mine was their last issue. That’s it.

Like most hack writers, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn and grow from my mistakes, at least some of which were conferred at the pleasure of well-meaning friends and colleagues. And mostly what I’ve done instead is ignore them. Still, there comes a point when even the most thick-headed, aren’t-I-precious coffee-shop nobody has to recognize that his two choices are, as they say, to evolve or perish. I’d already jeopardized both my income and my social standing by this time, and I wasn’t getting any younger or healthier. If I was going to leave this coil having been anything more than a pretentious, shitty storyteller, I was going to have to sort out why so many of the stories I’d tried to tell were so damned pretentious and shitty. The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one—a cliche whose truth-value is undiminished when its recognition takes more than half a lifetime.

To be fair, I thought I was trying to get better all-along. Particularly from 2004 to 2008, when I hosted a bi-weekly writers’ group—and it looked for a few minutes in there someplace like the very existence of that body would snap me out of my worst habits. There were calm professor-types and starry-eyed cheerleaders and not one or two but three eventual Pushcart winners. Surely, when my turn came up in the workshop’s rotation, I’d benefit from just the encouragement and gentle guidance I needed to root out what was wrong, and fix it.

Except that it kept not happening.

Each time my turn came around, I would show the group a new property that had been engineered specifically to respond to the same, repeat-loop criticisms—and two weeks later the group would come back with the same, repeat-loop criticisms. “You’ve got a good story here,” so the mantra went, “I just didn’t care enough about the characters.”

No one ever said anything different, and no one ever didn’t mean it in the kindest, most supportive way possible. And I kept not getting better. Whatever I tried, didn’t work. Over and over and over again.

I tried a manuscript in which each page was a different type of non-narrative document (like a dry cleaning receipt), and the only thing people didn’t like about it was that they didn’t care about the characters. I tried a manuscript that followed the template of a crash-investigation report by the NTSB, and the only thing people didn’t like about it was that they didn’t care about the characters. I tried a manuscript in which it gradually emerges that the audience is receiving the story through the canonical vocalizations of a homeless veteran and ... well, you get the idea.

Clearly it was time to cleanse the palette a little, so I did. I took some time to write about movies; I took some time to make a short film I’m quite proud of. I took some time to do laundry. I made it a point not to think about written storytelling. I took a break.

Fortunately or otherwise, the life of an aspiring writer is only marginally under his control at the best of times. That’s what makes us aspiring writers in the first place: If we had any control over our impulses we’d be carpenters and fishermen and amateur car mechanics. We’re not. We tell stories. Whatever the original impetus, it’s what we do—no matter how un-rewarding, and no matter how disrespected by a general public that insists on saying to us, and us alone, “You know I’ve been thinking about doing a little of that myself.” We write, as Oscar Wilde once had it, because the idea of not writing is even more unbearable.

And so it was that on an anonymously sunny Saturday afternoon in western North Carolina, I found myself driving down a busy highway and not thinking about anything much when I was struck by the lightning bolt of a massively ambitious, comically complex idea for yet another full-length fiction narrative. In one extended moment, like an impact with the guardrail, this whole, massive thing just lodged noisily right there in my frontal lobes: a popcorn-crackle of overlapping subplots and unhappy comeuppance. It was all there. And in the very next instant I realized how impossible it was going to be to carry off.

Not difficult. Impossible. So much so that as soon as the attack was over I eased my car to the shoulder, put it in park, turned on the hazard lights, and wept—pitifully and out loud, gasping at staggered intervals like a child who’d just blown his team’s chances to make the Little League World Series. I’ve told this part of the story to death among friends, but it’s true. And as it turned out, I wasn’t wrong, either. The first draft took me three years.

When at last the time for feedback came—when I’d circulated the six-hundred-and-fifty-page monoliths I’d printed (at work, thanks to my Department Chair’s generosity) and waited anxiously for six or eight or ten weeks for the feedback to come down—the feedback was, if anything, less encouraging than usual. Two of my three most valued editorial readers weren’t even able to finish the damn thing, which had never happened before. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I seemed to be getting worse instead of better. And that’s a pretty low moment to have when you’ve just spent the first term of a Presidency in laser-like focus on addressing the one problem that everyone’s been finding with your work.

So, what then? It’s not like the person in such a pickle doesn’t have options. He can quit and take up ping-pong, or maybe get himself a real life. But I don’t have the eye-hand coordination for ping-pong, and real lives have seemed alien to me since before I even started writing. All that remained was to somehow, somehow, figure out how to get past whatever it was that was blocking my path to improvement as a storyteller. With *this* story. No more shelved re-writes. No more easy do-overs. I was going to figure it out this time, with this property, because—this time—I no longer felt like I had any real choice.

At my best I’m basically a rip-off artist. A copyist. If someone does something that impresses me, I try to do it too—because I immediately and arrogantly presume that, surely, I can. As long as the feat of prowess in question doesn’t involve athleticism, when I see someone succeeding at the top of his craft my natural assumption is that if I studied his approach carefully enough I could be just as good at it as he is: All I’d have to do is rip off his technique.

But bear with me because this isn’t a self-pitying or self-deprecating comment as much as it was the critical revelation in my developing approach to becoming a more effective storyteller. Because if you’re a copyist who’s sick of being told that his stories are populated with uninteresting characters, what you do about it is—in its way—the perfect thing: You take the creative properties you most admire, and you isolate the decisions that those other storytellers made in developing their characters. You study just the narrow, plotless question of how those other creators built credible personages to roam the halls of their Freytag Triangles. 

What you don't see coming, if you're me at least, is that studying best practices for characterization in isolation like this has the effect of prioritizing it in a way that couldn’t otherwise be reached so easily. By having other craftsmen’s character-choices come alone, those choices also necessarily had to come first. Which turns out to be exactly where those choices belong, in any story—regardless of genre or medium.

This forensic deconstruction went on for quite a while, but at the end of it I was struck by three mutually reinforcing ideas that I have come to believe are the first, second, and third rules of a good story.

They are:

I. Characterization is inherently parametric

II. Plot is what then happens to specific characters, not the other way around


III. Characters fulfill their destinies along a specific and identifiable trajectory

All of which still might be rubbish, of course. When this essay is over, I will still be that guy writing about how to be a good storyteller without first having actually earned his chops as a storyteller in his own right—Brian Griffin with a less attractive hairstyle and a less inviting tone of voice. But the thing is, it sure doesn’t feel like rubbish. It feels like the set of principles that I hadn’t understood, and do now.

With this in mind, and with the obvious caveat that you’re reading a meta-piece by a guy who’s essentially never been published, I present them here unconditionally. If they help you in your quest to tell a good story, no charge.

I. The Parametric Fields of Characterization

I won’t tell you how many books and movies I studied with forensic pretense in desperate pursuit of a better understanding of how characterization works, except to say that it was not a small number of properties and I didn’t invest a small number of trips through each them along the way. One recurring touchstone was (and remains) Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential, the flawless neo-noir about three erstwhile corruptible cops who find it in themselves to go after the real evil in their city. And I really, really hope you’ve seen LA Confidential because I’m going to be referencing it over and over. Another favorite has been Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, another was the original Star Wars trilogy, and somewhere in there I found time to pick apart pretty much every screenplay to which Quentin Tarantino ever laid a bony finger.

In the end, the message that resolved out of the ether of all those re-watches and DVD-commentaries seemed as clear as the taxi-and-takeoff checklist for a commercial aircraft. A character in a fictional story, it would seem, is a tight weave of recognizable traits and patterns: numerous, but finite. They occupy different arrangements, different rankings of importance, but in some way or another they are always there.

Moreover these traits and patterns can be arranged in a sort of template—a worksheet, if you will—the fields of which just might tell the storyteller everything he needs to know about who that character is, and why he does what he does. I’ve actually developed fifty or sixty such fields, but the big hitters of the bunch seem to cover about ninety percent of the hard work of developing a credible character, so I’ll keep it to those in the present context.

(I’m going to use “he” as my generic pronoun for this essay because it’s a long essay and I would quickly tire of writing “(s)he,” or “he or she,” etc., but please don’t take that as sexist on my part because it’s not sexist; it’s just lazy. In real life I’m both, but here in this context I swear to you I’m just being the one and not the other.)

1. Motivations
By far the most important fields for the development of any character are his two competing agendas—sometimes referred to as his “motivations.” These are the two reasons why a character, be he fictional or your next-door neighbor, does everything he does.

We all serve agendas, and for most of us those agendas exist in some measure of irreconcilable tension. The guy who wants more than anything else to be taken seriously as a competent, dignified professional, but who also wants the freedom of not having to eat stupid shit that’s been served to him by stupid bosses, is going to live a life defined by that basic tension, and his individual choices will be relatively easy to map back to this tension and his desire to ameliorate it. Good storytellers understand this. They adorn the halls of their creations with friends and enemies who each have two motivations, and they confer to their most interesting characters a pair of motivations of basic, durable incompatibility.

One of these agendas is most commonly what I like to call “the presented I,” the person we position and posture ourselves to be accepted by others, as. This agenda tends to be more status-driven, less adequately contextualized, and more about id/ego than the social good. (Other writers on the subject call this the ego, exclusively, but in my experience the presented I of a good character is often every bit as much about the id.) By contrast the deeper, “shadow agenda” tends to be more the older brother inside our heads: the voice that says there should be more to our lives than respect-based acceptance from our friends.

In a healthy adult these two impulses are kept in balance by a third, unseen referee—the superego—tasked with not letting either agenda alienate the person from himself, either through craven selfishness on the one hand or denial of his basic emotional needs on the other. At all events, the tension among these three forces is what makes people interesting because it’s what allows us to recognize them as people.

To me the universality of this idea is its main appeal. Take an ambitious young cop whose dominant agenda, his presented I, is to surpass the meteoric rise of his own father through the ranks of the LA police force, but whose deeper motivation is to avenge his father’s anonymous death at the hands of a purse-snatcher who was never apprehended or even identified. These make for two interesting, credible, familiar motivations—we might call them “arrival” and “justice.” Except that on paper like this, they seem lacking in sufficient tension. Why wouldn’t the young cop advance his career, precisely by meting out justice? Because, sorry Charley, that’s just not how the world works: A cop who values his careerist chops first, and justice second, is sooner or later going to find himself in a situation where he can have one or the other of those two things, but not both. And this is true regardless of what those two motivations might be.

All of us have lived this moment and all of us will live it again. There’s the thing we want, and then there’s the right thing. And if we play the juggling game between them indefinitely, the universe will reach down and plonk us on the head for it. In the case of our careerist justice-seeker (let’s call him Edmund Exley since that’s his name in LA Confidential), everything will swim along in his world—until the path to careerist acclaim leads directly through an unjust conviction and possibly even the impulsive slaughter of some innocent suspects. This alone won’t land him in external hot water; he may even get a medal for it. But anyone who knows him as well as we do by that point in the movie will see at a glance that his story is just getting interesting.

2. Myers Briggs Personality Type
MBTI analysis has accumulated its fair share of detractors in the past few years and decades, but as a storytelling tool I can’t think of a single reference that might prove more helpful in distinguishing the assorted players of the tale. The distinctions are just too palpable, and too familiar to us, to pass un-exploited.

For those unfamiliar, the MBTI analysis assigns one of two letters to a person across each of four different fields—for a total sixteen basic personality types. An individual can be an “INTJ,” which is short for “Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judgmental,” or an individual can be an “ESFP,” short for “Extroverted, Sensory, Feeling, Perceptive.” Or an individual can be anything in-between. Each designation carries certain core traits along for the ride, and the combination of those traits form the recipe for our various personalities. An INTJ is a content-driven and often tone-deaf mad scientist type (see Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty, or Christopher Waltz’s chilling performance in the opening minutes of Inglorious Bastards). INFP’s by contrast tend to be impulsive, creative-arts types. ESFP’s tend to be unmanageable crowd-pleasers. And so-on.

If a storyteller knows the MBTI of each of his characters, he doesn’t have to stop there: There is also, it happens, a significant body of literature on how various MBTI types handle various kinds and degrees of crisis—what are sometimes referred to as their “factor analyses,” or MBFA’s. For example an INFP who is fully activated by an acutely stressful situation will have a difficult time communicating “off-credo” and may, in consequence, suffer from an (otherwise uncharacteristic) inability to articulate anything at all. INTJ’s are just the opposite: High-stress confrontations wink them over into Perry Mason mode, where every contradiction you ever committed in the past is read back to you like a stenographer’s piano roll of self-incrimination furled across the floor beside your witness dock.

If MBTI is gibberish, so be it. For my money, and in my experience, nothing clarifies the differences between character behaviors in a good story like knowing those characters’ Myers-Briggs types. So I’m sticking with it whether it’s true or not.

3. The “Big Three”
As I’ve come to think about these things, confidence, aptitude, and verbosity are three of the first attributes we notice about another person, and the three most durable and most difficult for that person to shake, later. An INTJ who exudes confidence and skill without talking much (James Bond via Daniel Craig) is a very, very different person than one whose confidence and aptitude are vastly outstripped by his tendency to natter away about things beyond his reach (like, say, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, or ... well, me, if it comes to that—which it generally does).

Knowing where your character resides on this three-dimensional chessboard is at least as important as knowing his Myers-Briggs. In Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, I haven’t any real idea what Ordell Robbie’s MBTI type might be, but I could have told you that he’s an overly-talkative and severely limited poser-bad-guy from a block away. And God help you when he goes quiet.

4. Core Paradox or Quirk

This brings me to the next thing that I’ve noticed in every well-drawn character: There’s something that doesn’t add up about the person, even in the context of conflicting agendas. Ordell Robbie can, and does, go quiet sometimes. We get a down payment on what that looks like and what it might mean when “Melanie” won’t answer her phone because she knows the call will be for him anyway. Robbie, who five seconds earlier was Mr Life-of-the-Party, goes as cold as a body-count before leveling his stare at her and saying, without fanfare, “Girl, don’t make me put my foot through your *ass*.”

I get ahead of myself here, but these quirks and paradoxes tend to “pay off,” meaning that at some point in the third act of the story, the existence of this counterpoint comes rushing back to fill the vacuum of familiar capabilities left behind in the vortex of an unforeseen crisis. If you’ve ever seen John Carpenter’s hilariously, intentionally bad movie Big Trouble in Little China, then you know that a perfect example of this is Jack Burton’s quick reflexes. There’s no obvious reason for him to be—on top of everything else he is in the first ten minutes of the movie—the guy who can catch a beer bottle that’s been sent sailing at his head. That is, there’s no reason for him to be that guy until the very moment when it’s the very thing that saves the day for everyone he cares about, ninety minutes of screen-time later.

5. Eric Berne’s “Games”

When Eric Berne published his book Games People Play in the late 1960s, it took popular culture by the kind of storm that most non-fiction writers scarcely dream about. Human interactions, he argued, are mostly scripted: People enter into a series of rehearsed moves, calculated to ensure a specific and generally unhealthful outcome which reaffirms their sense of place in the group dynamic by pushing away the scary prospect of personal improvement. These are the Games that People Play.

Berne spent about half his book explaining the research methodology that went into this thesis and the theoretical underpinnings of his conclusions, but the real meat of the book for storytellers is the second half—an “appendix” in which he chronicles all the games he’d witnessed in therapy, and what they each tell us about the persons playing them. There’s “Wooden Leg,” in which a person uses his pre-diagnosed character flaw as an excuse for non-constructive behavior toward the group, and there’s “Courtroom,” where a person clings irrationally to past factual statements or decisions by others, particularly as proof of unreliability. There’s “Let’s You and Him Fight,” and “Dry Alcoholic,” and “Why Don’t You / Yes But,” among many others.

Storytellers who seek to dimensionalize their characters’ behavior patterns would be foolish to ignore this reference, in my view—not least because of how believable these games have come to be, on account of how frequently we’ve all seen them practiced by other people already. A down-on-his-luck ex con who’s been roped into helping extract a gun-runner’s money from Mexico is the perfect candidate for Wooden Leg. A smart young woman who’s been painted into a corner of economic dependence by a criminal she disrespects, can credibly play Let’s You and Him Fight. An aging bail bondsman who never thought he’d be a bail bondsman this long, and has been looking for a way to self-destruct his way out of it, is probably going to play some variation of “Why Don’t You / Yes But.” The possibilities are all there and, crucially, if they’re chosen with care they’ll lend instant credibility to everything the character does and thinks and feels because we’ve all seen these games in action and know to recognize them as such, even if we haven’t read the book.

6. The Loop of the Mind
One of the less attractive aspects of basic human nature, in my view, is that we tend to reconcile our hypocrisies by ascribing their existence to the limitations of those around us. A God-fearing Christian who also hates environmentalism isn’t doing anything self-contradictory, at least in his own mind, because environmentalism is a sham perpetuated by a leftist media conspiracy. And each new element of proof that emerges in support of the existence of man-made climate change, is instead further proof of the depth and complexity of the conspiracy. Because it has to be. If it weren’t, then the God-fearing Christian would have to admit hypocrisy of the first order, and we can’t have that.

Mind you this is a pretty heavy-handed example. Loops-of-the-mind, in my experience, are generally far more subtle than this, and largely serve to mitigate a purely internal tension that the person might otherwise experience as a result of his competing agendas. A cop who as a child watched his father beat his mother to death and get away with it, will ascribe much of the injustice he encounters in adulthood to the thuggishly unsubtle criminal mind and the woeful inadequacies of the above-board justice system to address this problem. In substance, he exports his personal contradiction (between being a cop and a punch-first vigilante) by making it society’s problem instead.

These days when I’m developing loops-of-the-mind for my characters, I try to phrase things in the form of a “but” that would make you, if you overheard it from the next table at the coffee shop, pause with your coffee halfway to your lips. One of my all-time favorite characters of my own design is a middle-aged woman who hates the fact that she’s been trafficking younger women for a brutish patriarchal manipulator, but who can’t quit because she owes tens of thousands of euros in unpaid gambling debts to the local mafia. Thus, her Loop of the Mind: “Yes, I want to be free of all of this, but not even I can tell me what to do.” She’s not so much rationalizing, exactly, as she is creating a cyclic pattern of thinking about the problem that ensures she never has to rationalize in the first place. Neither of the sources of her contradiction is her own bad behavior. In my experience, this is how credible characters behave.

II. Plot is Just What Happens to These People. (Or, "The Cart Behind The Horse Where it Belongs.")

I’ll have much more to say about character parameters in a future column, but here I need to share with you the conclusion that rushed in behind my parametric breakthrough as vividly as did that silly novel idea in the Smoky Mountains. Plot, it turns out, doesn’t come first the way I always thought it did. And that’s either obvious to you, or virtually impossible to accept, but at this point I’m prepared to accept that it is inviolate. You can’t tell a good story by starting with an idea for the things that might happen to people, and then build the people around those things. Plot is what happens to people because of who they are—which means, for the storyteller, that trying to know the plot first is a clear sign that the battle has already been lost.

I think this is what the high-art craftspeople mean when they use the verb “trust” in story workshop. This always used to confuse the hell out of me, when the stone-cold pros of my old writers’ group would say things like, “You have to trust that character more.” It wasn’t that I stubbornly disagreed with their feedback; it was that I hadn’t the faintest idea what the hell they were talking about. Now, at last, I think I know. A storyteller who has crafted well-developed and multidimensional characters will at some indeterminate point in the process discover that he no longer has to force particular choices on his toy soldiers. All he has to do is get out of their way—trust them, as it were—and they’ll show him what happens next in the story on their own.

I seem to want to reiterate that this is very difficult advice to take if one has always thought of story as being plot-first and everything-else-second, but I think the reasons have more to do with psychology than story. When we see someone doing something hard, and we decide that we want to try to do it too, we imagine arriving at a point where it would feel easy. That’s just human nature: Nobody imagines stepping into the batters’ box in the bottom of the ninth inning of game seven of the World Series and thinking to himself, “Oh God, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this.” Nobody ever pretend-hits the big home run with that mindset. Ever. The fantasy is that we would toss-off that winning home run the way other people open a bag of crisps.

But plot in a good story is what we notice, as an audience, because that’s the long con of a good storyteller. In reality the apparent challenge of crafting a good plot is only serving to obfuscate the far greater challenge of crafting good characters. All the time and energy that went into the characters, if it’s done well, will be effectively undetectable. The plot is what we’ll notice, because that’s how these things are supposed to work: As an audience we think we’re tied up in the issue of what’s happening, and not who it’s happening to, because if the opposite were true we’d feel manipulated.

The question is, now that we’re finally ready for some plot—what sort of plot should it be? Fortunately the answer to this question, too, seems to abide by a well-documented framework of best practices, commonly referred to as “the story structure.”

III. The Structure of a Good Story

About six months ago while I was idly trolling Facebook (in both senses), I came upon the link to a YouTube video by Will Schoder, entitled “Every Story is the Same.” I watched it three times in a row, and my life as an aspiring storyteller has never been the same since.

Schoder is an interesting filmmaker. His work tends to “power-point” the core ideas of someone he admires, laying it out for his audience in a manner that is at once instantly accessible and yet flavored with just enough of his own insight and stylistic flair to render his version compellingly distinct from the source material. It would be a stretch to call him the copyist I’ve always set out to be—not least because he wouldn’t appreciate it—but it wouldn’t be a crazy stretch.

In his video about storytelling, Schoder takes us on a deep dive into the storytelling ethos of one Dan Harmon, co-creator of both runaway hit television series Community and Rick and Morty. Harmon, it transpires, is a disciple of Joseph Campbell—the man whose breakthrough work on mythological verisimilitude The Hero With a Thousand Faces has served as a bedrock reference on story structure ever since. I’m not smart enough for Campbell on the best day I’ll ever have, but Shoeder’s cliff-notes version of Harmon’s cliff-notes version of Campbell was instantly recognizable as being just my speed.

Harmon’s insight was deceptively straightforward: The reason certain stories resonate with their audience is because they mimic our prehistoric workday—and as such they trigger a vestigial evolutionary reward for being the people who think a prehistoric workday should sound like that.

A character who’s pretty comfy in his little cave with his little friends, gets up one morning, rubs the sleep from his eyes, and gets his ass thrown out of the cave on orders he didn’t ask for and doesn’t think he can fulfill. Except, because he has no choice, he leaves the cave anyway, whereupon he has a series of low moments that tear down his psyche more efficiently than the cave-keepers ever could. At his lowest moment, he encounters a supreme moment of crisis in which he can either choose the easy way out or pull himself together and do what he came for. He chooses to rise to the occasion, fine and good, but then the landscape kicks him in the gonads for his impudence. He collapses to his knees, cursing his decision, but somehow he finds it inside himself to stick to the tougher choice and, with the renewed dedication represented by that choice (and perhaps a little help), he is finally able to wield the tools he never knew he had and return to the cave with something new to share with everyone.

Harmon maintains that if we didn’t respond to that very story we wouldn’t be here, because we would have long ago been eaten. It comes down to genetics, in other words. The hero who chooses to give his cave-bosses the finger and go off to live alone, dies. The hero who chooses not to pick himself off the ground after he’s been punished for taking the hard way out, dies. The hero who doesn’t make it back to the cave, or doesn’t share his new thing with the rest of the group, dies. After which, none of those archetypes gets to canoodle with that hot cave-lady chick over there by the fire, and as such none of them get to be our fifty-times-great-grandfather.

Only those cavemen who followed the full path described above ever got the chance to give rise to what eventually became us, modern human beings, and accordingly we respond to modern versions of their plight as a no-choice facet of our firmware—as inviolate as birds flying south for the winter or sea turtles digging egg-nests with their back flippers on the beach by moonlight. To Harmon, every successful narrative must conform to the basic patterns of our prehistory, in order to resonate. Every, story, is, the, *same*.

What’s more, you will have noticed that hidden in that idea are a series of discrete beats—“stations,” if you will—in our hero-caveman’s trajectory. Every reference I’ve consulted on storytelling craft agrees on this much, from Schoder’s interpretation of Harmon’s interpretation of Campell, through Allen Palmer’s equally compelling if less well credentialed web series on screenwriting, “Cracking Yarns,” to the infamous modern screenwriting guide by Blake Snyder, Save the Cat.  All of them argue that a good story has a recognizable set of discrete, chronological ingredients. And if you squint hard enough, you can see that those competing takes on the matter really all come down to the same set of instructions. It’s such a ubiquitous idea among meta-critics that it’s often referred to in its own right, as “The Story Circle.”

Palmer’s embrace of the story circle, in particular, bears a mention here because he above the others makes what I consider to be the most salient point: All good stories ultimately come down to the issue of character transformation. At the end of the tale some important difference should manifest in the identity of our leading man (or woman, or both), and—here’s the thing—a storyteller who adopts the story circle as a tool for structuring his tale will see at once that character transformation is an inescapable end-result. “If you understand the Hero’s Journey and apply its principles,” he writes, “it’s impossible not to have your hero altered by their odyssey.”

Because I myself am an original disciple of Harmon-by-way-of-Schoder, I’m going to stick with Harmon’s taxonomy for the stations and the terms, but where possible I’ll try to nod at Palmer and Snyder too, especially if the coordination of the different versions is less than obvious. (Palmer, incidentally, freely admits that he bases his own conclusions on the parallel efforts of Christopher Vogler in another landmark meta-analysis, The Writer’s Journey.) But the long and the short of it seems to be that if you want to tell an effective story, it does seem pretty essential that your characters conform to some version or another of this recurring idea.

In its shortest form, Harmon’s version goes like this:

1. A Character is Established
2. His Situation is Discomposed
3. He Crosses a Threshold to an Unknown or Special World
4. He Embarks on a Road of Trials
5. He has a “Meeting With the Goddess”
6. He Embarks on a Second Road of Trials
7. He Crosses a Return Threshold
8. He is (now) Master of Both Worlds

As mentioned previously, most of my citations will come from LA Confidential and The King’s Speech, so if you’re enjoying this essay and you haven’t yet seen either or both of these films—well, first of all, what have you been doing with your life if you haven’t seen The King’s Speech or LA Confidential? But seriously, you should probably give them a look and then come back to me because otherwise a lot of my exemplary discussions here won’t make sense. (At the very least I’ll completely spoil both movies in the next few paragraphs, and you deserve to see them before they’re spoiled for you.)

And with that, here we go.

1. What I’ve Learned About Station One, Establishment
(Palmer: “Incomplete”; Snyder: “Opening Image,” “Set-up”)

After having scrupulously disassembled the various properties I’d chosen for my own independent study on the subject of characterization, I wouldn’t have expected as much trouble as I had in figuring out how to get my resulting creations efficiently across to my audience on first impression. But that turned out to be okay, because the first station in the standard model of story structure turns out to be an introduction of its principal cast. As such, my references on story structure effortlessly included several important points of interest for character establishment. Taken in toto, they seem in fact to form a sort of recipe for hooking an audience’s interest in your players in the first few scenes of your tale.

First, situation is character. When we meet Edmund Exley at the beginning of LA Confidential, he’s being interviewed by the press: the shift-commanding wunderkind who’d already shown the promise of living up to his father’s legacy as a titan on the force, with reporters’ questions carefully prefaced to lay all of that pipe for us out loud. This would be a heavy-handed way to establish the guy, except that it’s over too quickly and we’re in too much a supportive mood to let it bother us. Instead, we buy the whole thing straight off, right down to Exley’s look and affect as a clean-cut, somewhat priggish smile-factory who’s clearly enjoying the attention of the LA newspapers a little more than he really should, especially at whatever age and tenure he’s supposed to be. He’s flawed, sure, but flawed in a way we could live with in a friend. He doesn’t make us want to look away.

Our next meeting is with Bud White, who in less capable storytelling hands could easily be the least-likeable of our three main characters and by no small margin. He’s not afraid of physicality and he’s not above wielding it in lieu of due process. That ... doesn’t sound like someone I’d want to spend a movie with, all other things equal. So how does the film get us in his corner anyway? By introducing him in a specific situation that’s been calculated to maximize our sympathy—specifically in the process of staking out, and eventually subduing, a recently released felon who happens to be beating up his wife. We meet Bud White in that context because we’re getting something more from it than just his might-makes-right flat-footedness. Underneath that first impression, we’re getting the sense that there’s something a lot more compelling, maybe even sympathetic, going on.

And Jack Vincennes? He’s our playah. The guy who’ll take a fifty-dollar payoff from tabloid publisher Syd Hudgens to pull a contrived bust for the benefit of the tabloid publisher’s front page. But he isn’t thrilled about the collateral damage it causes and we see that right away, with his self-conscious frown through the Venetian blinds at the scene of the arrest. (It’s an extremely quick and subtle beat of the movie, him frowning through those blinds as the young detainees are bundled into squad cars—but make no mistake: It’s there for expressly calculated reasons, and it doesn’t go unnoticed even if you think it does.)

Harmon talks a lot about an audience’s tendency to conflate empathy with sympathy, and certainly Tom Hooper’s choice to open The King’s Speech with Albert (“Bertie”) unable to give the opening remarks at the 1936 European Cup fits that prescription to a T. But frankly I think this is a dangerous way to think about character establishment because it narrows one’s range of possible characters and settings in a way that feels upside-down in its priorities, at least to me.

Yes, it is true that, all other things equal, if five guys walk into a room and one of them trips on a ruck in the carpet, that’s the guy we’ll most be rooting for (until a better object for our sympathies comes along). But I don’t think that’s generally how good stories are told, and for counterexamples one need look no further than the efforts of Harmon himself, whose uncaring master-brain Rick Sanchez couldn’t less be the guy who’d trip over the carpet, and who we somehow love and even root for all the same.

Instead I prefer what he said about our introduction to John McClane’s in the opening beats of Die Hard. You may recall that at the film’s outset, McClane is strapped into an airplane seat and improbably terrified of flying. The guy sitting next to him tells him that the best way to deal with a fear of flying (and this is true, by the way), is to take the first opportunity back on solid ground to remove one’s shoes and socks and “make fists in the carpet with your toes.”

What makes McClane sympathetic through this exchange isn’t that he’s the guy tripping on the rug; it’s that we’ve walked in on him in an unlikely situation, and he’s dealing with it interestingly. If McClane’s method of addressing his fear of flying had been to shoot strangers in the white zone, the rest of the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling.

If you’ve seen Michael Mann’s statement-piece heist movie from 1980, Thief, you’ll agree that James Caan is anything but sympathetic in the opening scene—but boy-howdy does he command our undivided attention as someone we wouldn’t mind knowing more about. This is what I think Hitchcock really meant when he famously said, “You’ll always love a character who’s good at his job.” James Caan doesn’t trip over rucks in the carpet. Ever.

In cases where likeability is genuinely up for grabs like this, the other thing a storyteller can do (if he’s careful not to overplay it) is to have his character “save the cat.” Sometimes the hero of the story is amoral—if not immoral—and sometimes he’s involved in activities or situations that we wouldn’t condone or perhaps even find worthy of our investment. In such cases it’s not uncommon for the storyteller to try to telegraph the sympathetic nature of the character just by having that person do something nice.

All three of White, Exley and Vincennes get chances to save the cat, more or less immediately after our introduction to them at the beginning of LA Confidential: White gives away all of his own cash, from his own wallet, to the recently beaten wife of the ex-con he’s just apprehended. (“You got someplace you can stay?”) Exley refuses Vincennes’ kickback for the tabloid bust but, importantly, ascents to look the other way for it—amused as much as we are by Jack’s transparent charm campaign. Vincennes himself takes the very next opportunity that he’s on-camera to warn Bud White that he’d better go downstairs to the lockup, where White’s partner is assaulting shackled prisoners. (“You’d better get down there and pull him off before he kills someone.”) Not exactly playah-behaviah, that, but we’re still getting to know this guy and so, because our sense of him is still so fluid, we allow that he’s capable of saving the cat, and it helps us connect with him later.

Oh, and all Bertie does in The King’s Speech is tell an impromptu and conspicuously impeded love story to his two daughters—marking the first of about a dozen moments in that movie where your present correspondent flatly loses his composure and just starts blubbering right in front of everyone.

2. What I’ve Learned About Station Two, Discomfiture

(Palmer: “Unsettled,” “Resistant,” “Encouraged”; Snyder: “Theme,” “Catalyst,” “Debate”)

To be completely accurate, Harmon refers to this station as “somethin’ ain’t quite right,” but this handle troubles me a little because, whatever isn’t right about a character’s situation, it doesn’t actually have to be something internal that they’ve been harboring for a time now—which is how Harmon makes it sound.

Rhee Dolly, the lead character in Winter’s Bone, most assuredly does not feel inclined to go on the adventure of finding her presumed-dead father before his bail bondsman takes away their house. Cary Grant doesn’t have a care in the world when he unwittingly identifies himself as George Caldwell at the beginning of North by Northwest. Back in LA Confidential-land, Ed Exley didn’t ask to be locked in a cell while his fellow police officers assault manacled prisoners a few feet away, sparking the P/R crisis that will eventually lead to Exley’s shadowy promotion to Lieutenant. These people didn’t go looking for these catalysts; the catalysts went looking for them.

Where I agree with Harmon is when he observes that what all second stations have in common is their paternal edge. The comfort of a flawed-but-familiar situation in station one—the “mother circumstance,” if you will—is contrasted against a stern admonition by the universe that there are chores out there to be done and pipers to be paid. Station one is comfy like a breast; station two is uncomfy like a scraped knee after the training wheels come off. The psychology here is universal across story types, and unmistakable. 

In Hero With a Thouand Faces Campbell coined the term “Call to Adventure”: the inciting disruption that will eventually shake our hero loose from his cozy if imperfect surroundings. This is the moment when characters often experience a “first failure” of some kind: They are presented with a pretty clear opportunity to ascend to some wider destiny, and they flub it. Harmon refers to this process as “refusal of the call” and it’s more common than it sounds. The world on the other side of that creaking basement door is uncharted and scary; why not stay up here in the kitchen where things might not be perfect but at least they’re familiar? Why not indeed.

Both Harmon and Palmer note that, if handled properly, the refusal of the call can be a great shot in the arm for a character’s sympathy. Most of us spend most of our lives afraid in one way or another, and instead of admitting it, most of us rationalize. We can’t move because we’d have to change jobs. We can’t get married because we don’t have the down payment for a house. We can’t tell the positively amazing woman, who lives two blocks away and reads a book a week, that we’ve been in semi-secret love with her for years--because she’s also young and trusting and the news would strike her as an unsavory betrayal of the circumstances and founding principles of our friendship. (Oh, wait: did I say that last one out loud?)

Point being, as long as the Refusal isn’t whiny or conspicuously exasperating, as long as its played with a gentle nod to the fear beneath the rationale, the audience should feel a natural affinity for the impulse and—crucial, this bit—should be quietly rooting for a change of heart in that character, just as they quietly root for the same change of heart in themselves.

Station two is also where characters often meet mentor figures, knowingly or otherwise, which makes it the perfect place to introduce unlikely power dynamics, especially if the audience will need to accept those dynamics later at their word. If, later in the story, the audience might be tempted to say, “Why didn’t that guy just tell the other guy to stuff it,” it’s important to show that the personal power dynamics between them wouldn’t allow it while the stakes are still low in the first act.

Lastly, station two is where down-payments on the “unsurprising surprise” should be sown. The klutz with fast reflexes has to be shown to us as a klutz with fast reflexes here, before our impressions of him have solidified in a way that would make that combination less believable. Campbell refers to this idea as “the magic wand,” but in my experience it’s more often a trait, an accomplice, a backstory, maybe even just an idea, that gets lodged in our conscious awareness of the story at this point, and then doesn’t come up again until it’s needed much later. Juno’s boyfriend really likes orange tic-tacs. So what better way, an hour from now, to show how much she cares about him?

3. What I’ve Learned About Station Three, Crossing of the Threshold
(Palmer: “Committed”; Snyder: “Break to Act Two”)

Of all the common features of story structure that I’ve seen people write about, using all the different vocabulary and arguments, none are more compelling to me than the need for a conspicuous break from the familiar at the conclusion of act one. We can’t come back to the cave with something new to share if we don’t leave the cave.

Ed Exley experiences this unfamiliarity with his promotion to Detective-Lieutenant in the openly hostile environment of the Homicide division; Jack Vincennes experiences it with his demotion to Vice. Bud White is reinstated to the force, but only to be drawn into the seedy orbit of Captain Dudley Smith, who in his spare time has been beating out-of-town mobsters senseless, freelance style, at the abandoned Victory Motel. Rhee Dolly, and many a character like her, goes literally on the road. In all cases, and whatever the reluctance that went before, this is the moment where our hero steps across the last low hedgerow at the furthest reaches of The Shire, and will henceforth visit places, and characters, and feelings, and experiences, that he has never seen or felt or experienced before.

Often the final impetus for the crossing of this threshold actually comes from the other side. At times this takes the form of the character having leaned too close to the rim of a black hole, thence to be sucked in (Bud White, Jack Vincennes); other times the tentacle from the far side of the threshold takes the form of a be-careful-what-you-wish-for proposition (Exley). Sometimes the character doesn’t even know he’s crossing to the other side until he wakes up there (Michael Douglas’ character in David Fincher’s outstanding directorial debut, The Game.)

Since my present project is a caper, I'll also note here that heists and capers face an unusual challenge with this station, insofar as most heists and capers involve figures who’ve done things like this before. But before we dismiss the threshold idea as it might apply to an entire genre, I invite you to think of a heist or caper in which something wasn’t importantly different this time around in the lives of our merry little band. Because I think you’ll agree that, the longer one thinks about it, the more one begins to think that every central caper in a caper story has an important twist from the usual jobs that the hero had previously pulled, to make it special.

Sometimes, as in Peckinpah’s The Getaway, the criminal mastermind is being forced to work with a new team. Sometimes, as in Roger Donaldson’s Bank Job, it’s that the team has never tried anything this big before. Sometimes, as in Michael Mann’s Thief, the stakes have been inflated so high that the ring-leader announces his intention to divest from future jobs and adjourn to the good life with his wife and son when the present heist is through. 

At all events, the longer I study these things, the more convinced I become of the universal efficacy of a palpable threshold between the familiar situation and something thoroughly up-ended. Even the most atmospheric properties I can think of, have an element of special-world unfamiliarity at their hearts.

4. What I’ve Learned About Station Four, The Road of Trials
(Palmer: “Disoriented,” “Inauthentic”; Snyder: “B-Story,” “Promise of the Premise”)

There’s a reason why Palmer refers to this station as “disoriented [and] inauthentic,” and he does such an outstanding job with his analogy that I offer it more or less verbatim, here: Much like the first day in a new school, a character’s first tentative steps into his special world will be vivid with the twin alienations of an unfamiliar situation, populated by unfamiliar fellow players. And if he’s anything like us, he’ll respond to at least some degree by faking it.

This isn’t a cynical rant about the worst side of human nature, either—it’s actually a pretty valuable skill. What the human organism does better than any other, perhaps foremost, is to stand fast in a stressful new environment and improvise a new awareness and a new set of tools. We fake it, in other words. We fake it until we’re not faking it anymore, instead of turning-tail and running for our burrow. If we didn’t do this one thing, and had everything else going for us that we do, we still probably wouldn’t be here.

But faking it is only as effective as the universe is prepared to tolerate, and here all authorities on story structure seem to agree that the main purpose of the road of trials is to signal to the hero that faking it isn’t going to be enough. Instead the character finds himself stripped of all his baggage—mostly the ego-based, presented-I baggage that he thought was so important before his adventure began.

True growth from true epiphany rarely comes unless a person’s old modes have been so shattered, or become so costly, as to be rendered unsustainable. At some point, faking it has to cease to work, or growth cannot arise from the ashes of one’s fruitless maneuvering. Alcoholics call this moment hitting bottom. Soldiers call it Basic Training. Professors call it college. Buddhists call it enlightenment. We can’t become the instruments the universe intends for us, until we’ve first been forced against our will to abandon whatever leftover antics might tempt us to reject this new, tougher identity.

For this process to resonate with an audience will again require the application of consistent sub-stations that can be adapted to almost any story. The first of these, immediately after crossing the threshold, is what Campbell called “the belly of the whale.” The alienation of the special world causes a reduction to base-essence, wherein some characters sit down in the mud and cry, and others cowboy-up.

You’ll often hear survivors of extreme situations talk about this: Perhaps the one anonymous stranger whom they most expected to take charge and keep everyone else centered, was the first one to fall apart. Perhaps the opposite happened. Perhaps they both did. One harrowing example of this from real life is that of the M.V. Estonia, a ferry whose bow sheered off in high Baltic seas in the dead of night, and a group of whose survivors was kept alive in an upturned raft by the sheer force of will demonstrated by a stranger who turned out later to be the drummer in the ferry’s house band. The inside of the belly of the whale is not an accommodating place, and persons of differing core temperaments tend to respond very differently to finding themselves there.

After the belly of the whale, the road of trials proceeds to what might be called “the three tests.” To this point our character has protected an assortment of cherished crutches for his ego—ideally three of them—and it is at this point in the story that these are ripped from him without sympathy, in order of increasing importance. Ed Exley is forced to give up (a) his integrity-based reasons for avoiding Jack Vincennes, (b) his glasses, and (c) his unwillingness to shoot a suspect without due process. In that order. All the embellishments of his supposedly inviolate commitment to integrity-based careerism (at the expense of true justice) are taken from him, in sequence, because they have to be before he can give the Rollo Tomasi speech about how Justice was supposed to be what mattered most all along. The old Exley was never going to admit such a thing. That is, until he was backed into the corner of having no choice.

Bud White has to be backed into admitting that if he’s not smart enough to figure out what really happened at the Nite Owl, it won’t be figured. Jack Vincennes has to be backed into admitting that there’s more to being a cop than being a playah. Bertie has to be backed into admitting that his horrific childhood is no excuse for ducking his responsibility as next-in-line for the throne. None of these characters would have touched these epiphanies with a barge pole by choice, and the only way they can reach the point of epiphany is if epiphany is the only option, if the coping mechanisms for its avoidance are rendered in one way or another untenable.

There is one last thing that seems to happen consistently on the road of trials, namely what Palmer calls the “propose to Nancy moment,” in homage to Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this one, I’m sure: Sociopathic weatherman Phil Connors wakes up in Punxsutawney Pennsylvania on the day after his grudging acceptance of a live remote to cover groundhog day—only to discover that it isn’t the day after, at all, but is instead the same groundhog day all over again, right down to the dialogue. And then it happens again, and again, and again, and again.

At first Connors tries to resist the un-reality of the situation but pretty quickly he adopts it as his license to do whatever the hell he wants. He robs an armored car, eats gluttonous amounts of horrific food, and tries his hand with—and eventually beds—the local hottie, Nancy. None of which makes him happy, of course, and that’s why what happens next is so important to the story: Phil *proposes* to Nancy (and, of course, she accepts). He knows he’s not really on the hook of a lifelong commitment to a woman he doesn’t like and barely knows, but that isn’t really the point: A marriage proposal, even that one, is wholly out of character, even with those caveats.

This moment belongs there in the story because, with this action, Phil signals that he is ready to be transformed. He doesn’t know the true form this transformation will take (or it would scare the hell out of him), and he doesn’t even know that he’s signaling his readiness for it. But make no mistake: If Phil doesn’t propose to Nancy at that point in the movie, nothing in its second half would have worked or even made much sense. Characters have to show that they’re not going to self-destruct when their crutches have been taken away. As a species, we have to signal that we’re ready for (in the words of Campbell) the life that’s waiting for us. We have to signal that we’re ready for it before it has a chance to plausibly happen. We have to let the right one in.

In LA Confidential, a newly reinstated Jack Vincennes appears for the triumphal return to his on-set advisory role for the Badge of Honor program, sucks in his gut before a full-length mirror, sighs wistfully, and exhales with a bemused shake of his head. It’s such a subtle beat that it’s probable to suppose most people missed it altogether, or at least thought they did—but the message is as clear and intentional as a sword fight with Darth Vader on Cloud City: You can’t be a playah forever and, even if you could, it wouldn’t be enough.

Bud White runs out on his last “legitimate” interrogation with Dudley Smith, signaling that he’s ready to be a lot more than Smith’s muscle. Exley receives a formal commendation for murdering an unarmed suspect in an elevator, and at the ceremony he “proposes to Nancy” without saying a word: You can see it on his technicolor face that such careerist accolades as these aren’t going to feed the bulldog—if this is how he’s forced to get them.

5. What I’ve Learned About Station Five, The Bed of the Goddess
(Palmer: “Confronted”; Snyder: “Mid-Point”)

Our character is now ready for the realization that larger issues are afoot, and that bigger, more destiny-based remedies are within his reach—if only just. The life that’s waiting for him is more important, and scarier, and less certain, than he could possibly have imagined. Palmer refers to this idea as the story’s “central crisis”: The shit that our hero will need to get together if he’s going to save the girl and win the Karate trophy and slay the dragon and lop the head off the bad guy on the roof of a speeding LA subway train.

All parties to the meta-literature of good storytelling would seem to agree that this beat, rather than the climax, is the most important structural element of a good narrative. This is because, in order to sustain our interest for a third act, a character must first accept that the Time Has Come to Put Aside Childish Things. Otherwise the climax itself would ring hollow, just more self-absorbed horsing around by someone who hasn’t re-prioritized and doesn’t deserve our best wishes. This much is axiomatic among story-chroniclers.

Where dissent seems to reign is in the limits of how precisely this idea should be interpreted and applied. Each of the sources I’ve consulted on craft contain differing views on how a central crisis needs to manifest, and from whence its triggers should come, and all of these takes can be supported by precedent. That should be a real problem for us, at this point, but it isn’t if we think of it as flavors at the ice cream store, instead of contradicting recipes. 

It seems to me that the central crises of good stories conform to an assortment of stable archetypes, depending on temperament and story type and rather a lot else, but nonetheless predictable as a finite list of choices. I’m sure there are more, but I offer the following seven as a good starter-kit.

Crisis Type 1: Faulty self-graduation. Often in good stories a character’s road of trials and his proposal to Nancy go a little bit too well, as opposed to too badly, the result of which is a premature belief on his part that he has grown all he needs to grow. This sort of thing used to happen a great deal in the original Star Trek series, where a midpoint situation would prove so cushy for our fearless away team—often at the literal hands of a troika of comely young women—that eventually it would fall to The Original Womanizer Himself to snap them out of it with yet another of his ‘mankind-wasn’t-meant-for-paradise’ monologues.

Our best example of this type is the easiest for us to reach: Having won Nancy’s acceptance of a marriage proposal in Groundhog Day, Phil Connors decides he’s ready for the big leagues and proceeds to try his moves out on Rita, the person he really likes. And what happens? You will perhaps recall that she rewards him for his premature hubris by slapping him about sixty-three times over a forty-second montage. Now that’s a crisis.

Crisis Type 2: Contradicting agendas. About a hundred paragraphs ago I mentioned how important it seems to be that a character’s two motivations exist in some sort of tension—even, or perhaps especially, if they appear at least superficially compatible. Ed Exley can have his career, or he can find out what really happened at the Nite Owl, but it is at this point in the movie where he can no longer avoid the realization that it won’t be both—period.

For various reasons, I think Type 2 has the most cachet with audiences, and is thus the easiest to invoke without fear of coming off heavy-handed. If Harmon’s central premise is true that audiences respond to stories they recognize as mirrors of their own genetic programming, then clearly Type-2 crises are going to connect with the widest assortment of potential audiences, since it’s the very type of crisis that all of us live with every day of our lives.

The other main appeal of this crisis type is its fluid implications for the character’s growth: If the shadow agenda has, all this time, been the one that’s less about the self and more about a higher calling to a larger responsibility, then surely the easiest way to transform a character is to have him throw off the posture-act and dig down for the more mature way of being, no matter how uncertain or scary it may be. The presented I, and the shadow agenda, have swapped places.

Crisis Type 3: Refusal of the second call. Once a character has been stripped of his ego crutches and shown his larger destiny, it’s not uncommon for the character to balk those larger responsibilities—usually on account of them seeming manifestly above his pay-grade. An example of this type may be found in the improbably superlative Arrival, in which one Louise Banks (Amy Adams) wants to be taken seriously as a top-tier pro at linguistics and translations, but does *not* want to be the person tasked with putting on the kind of big-girl pants it would take to literally save the world. (Spoilers, next paragraph.)

At a critical moment in the film, General Tsiang says to her, “You stopped all of this, not me—and all because you called me on my private number.” And a time-slipped Louise, visibly shaken by the very thought of such impunity, replies, “But General I don’t have your private number.” This is sneaky-crucial (and by the way sneaky-maestro-storytelling), because of course what she’s really saying is, “Not me, not me, not me, not me, oh Sweet Jesus Christ in heaven, please-please-please not me. Not, *me*. Seriously, dood. NOT, friggin’, ME.”

Meanwhile, in LA Confidential, Bud White doesn’t think he’s smart enough to crack the Nite Owl killings. And says so—while he’s in Lynn Bracken’s bed. Doesn’t get a lot more refusal-of-the-second-call, than that. Harmon even refers to this moment as “the bed of the goddess,” and it’s certainly easy to see why, if also a bit over-specified for my two cents.

Crisis Type 4: Be careful what you wish for. Both Type 1 and Type 4 are distinct in that their roads of trials are less about being torn down and more about falsified success—with the difference being that, in type 4, the character never thought there was a bigger prize, a Rita, to which to graduate. The best topical example of this is Jack Vincennes, who was happy to think that all he ever wanted was his easy, playah-status ballgame with Badge of Honor and Syd Hudgens. And the crisis that Hudgens swiftly shows him in consequence is that of just what his most recent $50 payoff has really cost: an innocent human life.

Crisis Type 5: There is nothing more. In this crisis type, the fulfillment or denial of the character’s presented agenda leaves a vacuum where the bigger, more important agenda should be—but isn’t. What makes this one different is that the character hasn’t known about this empty space until now, precisely because he’s been too busy chasing the presented agenda. Now that he has it, he’s struck like a lightning bolt by the realization that the lived-for thing was never enough, and that now he might be too late to fashion a life that’s about anything more. Eventually in good stories such characters often learn of the existence of a bigger agenda, but what distinguishes this crisis type is the lasting sense that there might just not be one, at all.

Rick Sanchez of Rick and Morty periodically experiences this crisis type, but a more familiar example might be that of Al Pacino’s character, Colonel Frank Slade, from Martin Brest’s impeccable motion picture Scent of a Woman. When we meet first meet Slade, the departure of his over-protective daughter and son-in-law is supposed to motivate a weekend of summative debauchery (here at the end of Slade’s expected lifespan). An hour of screen-time later he’s gotten everything he wants and then some—I mean, there’s a scene where he gets to drive a Ferrari despite being blind, for goodness’ sake—but instead of savoring the moment, the apparent conclusion of the weekend’s festivities leaves Frank so bereft of purpose and direction that he promptly sits down in the shrubs of a highway median and relieves himself directly into his trousers.

This is pro-territory storytelling, in that it’s next to impossible to fashion such a character, experiencing such a crisis, without losing the affections of the audience somewhere along the way. But here’s the thing: For those characters whose makeup and circumstances demand this sort of anti-hero oblivion at station five, any other choice will seem grafted-on and false. Speaking only as an audience member here for a moment, I can attest that few things alienate me from a narrative like seeing a self-absorbed antihero trip casually over his higher purpose at the precise nanosecond that his lottery ticket has come in. Don’t do it.

Crisis Type 6: The full take-down. Nowhere do I differ with Palmer’s take on Vogler more acutely than on the subject of his exclusive-sounding preference for central crises in which denial is finally and insufferably laid bare. To hear Palmer tell it, the best screenplays are the ones in which a character pushes against the shadow motivation until his entire ego shell has not just crumpled but exploded into tiny bits of flying shrapnel. The hero is pushed to complete collapse, sometimes even physical collapse, and there’s not a dry eye in the house.

It’s certainly an effective type when it’s called for and carried off properly, and Palmer’s got some terrific examples, too—from Heath Ledger’s why-won’t-you-let-me-be speech in Brokeback Mountain, to the “I’ve got nowhere else to go” scene between Richard Gere and Louis Gossett Junior in An Officer and a Gentleman. Both are outstanding, maybe even apotheosis examples of a crisis in which our hero isn’t going to change until there is literally no other choice. But it is a type, nonetheless, and it manifestly doesn’t always fit.

I mean, can you imagine a scene in which Dudley Smith taunted Edmund Exley for the casualties of his careerist pursuit of a Nite Owl collar? Can you see Exley, shouting “No!” with his hands cupped over his ears, tighter and tighter until he bolts from the room, only to stumble against a partition across the hall and collapse in a crying heap beside the water fountain? 

Sure, I can too, but LA Confidential would be a much-diminished movie for it. Some characters and situations demand the full take-down; in others it would come across as forced and cliche. As with each type, and each station, the heavy lifting that’s gone before into developing the characters must override any downstream structural choices, regardless of how well they might otherwise be seen to work.

Crisis Type 7: *Crack* that nut, hoss. Sometimes the problem with a character’s presented I isn’t so much with his motivation as his methods. This is often the case in heist/caper properties, where the ringleader becomes so enamored with his own brilliant plan that he clings to it after things have already started going haywire. The Guy Ritchie / Matthew Vaughn movies are chockablock with examples of this crisis type, as are most of the better offerings of David Mamet, who seems to love denial in the face of a plan-gone-wrong with such recurring fervor as to suggest some degree of self-psychologizing might be afoot somewhere just beneath the surface.

But my favorite example—not least because I think it exposes a deep and unforced error in an otherwise pretty doggone well-made film—is the crisis experienced by the main character in David Fincher’s English-language version of the Swedish crime thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In that picture Mikael Blomkvist’s desire to redeem himself by solving a twenty-year-old murder isn’t ever really the problem, as much as it is his INTJ-fixation on processing and assembling the facts directly in front of him. 

Everything he’s done, right up to the moment of that spine-curling confrontation in Stellan Skarsgard’s basement, has been in service of a palpably dogged, unfussy, inside-the-box approach to the question of what might have happened to Harriet on that summery afternoon on the island, all those years before. And, in this respect at least, Palmer would be pleased—since it takes being hung from a whiplash collar and very nearly stabbed to death to snap Blomqvist out of it.

Except for the small problem that it doesn’t, quite.

No, my beef with Fincher’s choice at this point in the story—and I can say this because I positively adore David Fincher—is that after the basement scene, Mikael reaches his outside-the-box conclusion about Harriet’s disposition way, way, way too easily, and in the very next scene. Indeed he basically throws away the key line, as if a single parking spot photographed from two different angles had been the thing confused him up to now, instead of the literal truth of the crime he’s been tasked with investigating.

In my experience, real human beings will pay almost any price, commit to almost any convolution, change almost any subject, before admitting that their approach to something has been the problem. Maybe that’s the cynical former college professor in me, talking, but for my money a type-seven crisis has got to really, *really* hurt. Not physically. Not even externally. For realz, yo. Just something to keep in mind.

5A. Moving Forward from the Central Crisis
Of course, now that the character has experienced the big ah-ha, he needs to act on it. This raises the curtain on a second beat of station five that I like to refer to as the “Hesitate-Then-Go.”

Consider where things stand at this point in the story: Our character, wrenched from a flawed but comfy cave and impelled across the threshold into a perilous outside world of unfamiliar rules and faces, has progressively grasped for each of the three walking sticks he thought were most important to him, and had them kicked away by the universe with a little more gusto each time. He’s signaled that he’s ready to see something more (and he’s signaled this by missing the real point), and he’s been confronted with the awesome reality of just what that something more might be.

In real life it takes an extremely special person to casually shrug-off the wreckage of everything they thought they stood for in a passing flash. Indeed this is what makes station five a crisis in the first place: The other, bigger thing is, by its very definition, costlier and less familiar and by those measures much, much scarier. It is altogether fitting that our hero might need to mull it over a little before arriving at his ultimate commitment to the new path. I mean, if he doesn’t, the audience is going to think it’s strange and unfulfilling and maybe even unsympathetic.

In LA Confidential the audience is treated to three conspicuous beats of hesitate-then-go, one for each of the three main characters. They’re even packed together in what amounts to a sort of extended montage, each scene of which is a direct response to whatever central crisis has just confronted the character in question. 

Bud White, having just been bedded by the un-beddable Lynn Bracken, is told by Bracken that—yes—he is smart enough to figure out what happened at the Nite Owl. (You found Padgett. You found me.) In response he pauses, stares at her for a poignant moment while he thinks it over, and then there’s a hard cutaway to the LAPD’s basement evidence-room, where he grills the technician for another look at the crime-scene photos.

Edmund Exley, having just been told that the “three negroes” probably weren’t guilty of the Nite Owl killings, sits in his office and stares fixedly at—literally hesitates over—his commendation medal, before pushing back from his desk to go and see Vincennes. 

When he finds him, Vincennes is staring plaintively at coverage of one of his celebrity busts on the cover of Hudgens’ magazine. Exley proceeds to tell the story of Rollo Tomasi, after which he pauses and says to Vincennes, “What about you? Why’d you become a cop?” And Vincennes—in a literally Oscar-worthy delivery by Spacey—mocks a hollow laugh, pauses, and says in a raspy whisper, “...I don’t remember.” (I’m off-script, here, but if you don’t love that scene you have no business watching movies, because it’s fucking perfect.)

What strikes me about all of these examples, and so many others along our journey through this essay, is how unforced they seem—despite their orthodox adherence to these apparent structures. Not everyone loves LA Confidential enough to include it in his personal list of the 100 Greatest Movies Ever Made, true enough. But let no one say that the picture is in any way trite or hackneyed or formulaic or cliche. 

And yet here, stacked literally all in a row, are three consecutive examples of what should strike us as an inorganic, paint-by-numbers storytelling device. You say your movie has three main characters and they’re all conflicted cops? How about three scenes in a row where they each pause, pull themselves together, and step up to do what’s right as cops? Gosh, works for me.

6. What I learned about Station Six, the Second Road of Trials

(Palmer: “Reborn,” “Desperate”; Snyder: “Bad Guys Closing,” “All is Lost,” “Dark Night of the Soul”)

One of the most important truths in this life is that the universe doesn’t get to be the well-oiled machine it is by pandering to people’s individual epiphanies. And I should know. Thus it is that, once our hero has realized and accepted that larger destinies are afoot, his first foray into this new and larger role will be fraught with confusion and dissonance. It may be—it may just be—that he’s up to his new role as an actor on the clockwork instead of a passive recipient of its every whim, but it’s not going to happen just because he pulled himself together and decided to try. That’s just not how any of this works. The good news is that here again this larger paradigmatic truth is accessorized by a collection of serial refinements which I’ll call “Uncertainty,” “Atonement,” and “Release.”

Our character is in a doubly unfamiliar situation now: He’s already treading water in a special world of new rules and new players, and now on top of that he’s got an unfamiliar motivation banging away in his brain, and an unfamiliar set of tools with which to get it to shut up. In the cutaway to the evidence room, Bud White is clearly self-conscious about being out of his depth when he asks to see the crime-scene photos from the Nite Owl, but the specifics of his character—and by the way, all of those specific character refinements from the first section of this essay are of course crucial to the craftsman’s decisions at every point along the story circle—incline him to hang tough for just long enough to work out that his dead partner was somehow involved with one of the prostitutes being run by the arch villain of the movie. The sword is wobbling conspicuously, but it’s held high over his head anyway.

Exley and Vincennes have their own version of this beat as well—Exley’s when he confronts Lynn Bracken, and Vincennes’ when he’s tailing Bud White, who is after all a fellow police officer. None of them are sure of their chops, but all of them are sure of their path, and in just that grown-up way of persons who’ve decided they finally understand what matters and what doesn’t.    

Clearly these new modes of behavior can’t coexist with the old ones (or else there wouldn’t have been a crisis at station five), so somewhere early in the character’s tryout of this fresh set of tools he has to be shown the inadequacy of his previous ways—usually in the form of, in Harmon’s words, “paying a heavy price.” Luke Skywalker couldn’t blithely follow in his father’s mercenary-adventurer footsteps if it meant that Leia, Han, Chewie and the droids would come to grief at Cloud City, but his decision to cowboy-up and go after them will cost him both the approval of Master Yoda, *and* his dominant fighting hand, into the bargain.

This is the price he must pay for having chosen this tougher, less certain path. He must, in Campbell’s metric, atone—both for the choice itself and for having put it off for so long while his personality crystallized around a less mature set of choices.

If you doubt that this is standard boilerplate storytelling, ask yourself why action movies so commonly have at least one beat in them where the swashbuckling hero winces and says, half under his breath, “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit.” He says it because he’s right, he is gettin’ too old for this shit. And he’s committed, anyway—and the collision of those two facts is the piper that must be paid in station six of his trajectory.

Meta-writers tend to call this idea “atonement” because of its patriarchal component: We’ve messed up, and to make things worse we waited way too long to come clean about it, so now we’re going to take our scolding. It’s no happy accident that Darth Vader turned out to be Luke Skywalker’s father, or that he chose to reveal this devastating tidbit during their epic (and enthrallingly uncertain) confrontation atop the gantries of Cloud City. In the end, it would seem, atonement is all about appeasing—and ultimately vanquishing—the image of one’s father. You can’t be your own person if you’re content to trap yourself behind your father’s shadow of approval and disdain: You’ve got to step out into the harsh glare of your own flawed character and own your own imperfect choices, and live with them. The universe doesn’t owe you diddly.

This is where our character should fail his second big test (the first one having come all the way back in station two, remember?). It's only natural, on account of the tendency to believe that a breakthrough in thinking should be all that’s required. Characters can and do fairly consistently overreach at this point in the story—and who better to exemplify that idea than Luke Skywalker himself? 

When Yoda and the “ghost” of Obi Wan team-up to try to discourage Luke from abandoning his Jedi training on Dagobah, they aren’t just signaling to the audience that Luke’s about to pay a heavy price for his newfound sense of responsibility to his friends; they’re genuinely concerned because he genuinely isn't ready. He’s decided that he’s grown-up enough to face Darth Vader at Cloud City—and in his mind, having decided this, the rest of the issue has no business not taking care of itself.

In my experience the universe does not brook such impunity, pretty much ever. The decision, as painful as it was in station five, is the easy bit: Again, that’s what made the decision so difficult in the first place. Deep down we knew that it was a decision for which we weren’t ready, so we don’t now get to behave as if the commitment alone is what merits the award.

Bud White’s atonement/second failure comes in the form of his horrific discovery of Buzz Meeks’ corpse, rotting beneath old-lady-Lefferts’ porch. Exley’s comes in the form of a deeply disturbing encounter on Lynn Bracken’s floor—a failure of justice-driven integrity of the first order and, again, no accident. Across town at the home of Captain Dudley Smith, Jack Vincennes even says he’s trying to atone for the death of Matt Reynolds—out loud—right before Smith shoots him across the kitchen table. Talk about paying a heavy price for one’s second failure to pivot to a life of justice, huh.

At least our character has committed to the harder path; never mind that his first tentative steps on that higher path—his second road of trials—have been unsuccessful. Because, well, because they would be. If he makes it this far, the priming process will stand nearly complete for a (hopefully triumphal, but undoubtedly harrowing) return. 

But first we really need a break from all this relentless agitation, and so it is that the third thing to happen in station six is some form of audience release. The descent from the threshold of the unknown world in station three has started us on an extremely difficult middle hour of our journey. Now that the character knows what’s really important and has (re-) committed to it, this is the time to give everyone a literal breather.

Comic relief is the most common device employed at this point in the circle, even in narratives that aren’t otherwise remotely funny such as LA Confidential. Having just committed himself to the higher, truer path of getting to the bottom of the Nite Owl killings, Exley confronts Johnny Stompanado—seated in a booth with (Exley presumes) a hooker who has been surgically altered to resemble Lana Turner. When she tries to interrupt his impromptu questioning of Stompanado, Exley curtly tells her to shut up and even calls her a whore, whereupon it turns out that she really is Lana Turner, ha ha ha.

In The King’s Speech, the same sort of release is achieved by having Lionel Logue’s speech therapy client and his wife turn up at Logue’s house unannounced—and, oh by the way, the client and his wife just happen to be the King and Queen of Great Britain. Our man Logue, visibly discomposed for the first time in the film, hides in his sitting room with King George because, it transpires, he’s never told his wife about any of this. “We can’t stay here all day,” says a visibly unruffled Bertie—to which Logue replies, “Oh yes we can,” ha ha ha.

There is absolutely no point to either of these beats in their respective stories; they exist solely to buy us a few precious gulps of oxygen before the X-Wing fighters are finished re-fueling and it’s time to go off and attack the Death Star.

There is one pretty big digression I’d like you to indulge me with, here, and it’s my biggest complaint with Harmon. I think its worth it, though, since those readers who plumb the source material are sure to come across the same example that I did, and it confused the hell out of me for weeks. 

In his treatment of station six, Harmon writes, “In a love story, this is where the couple breaks up. Now comes the stubble and the dirty dishes and the drawn shades.” I spent the bulk of a summer trying to conform this statement to the other precepts I’d glossed about the second road of trials—including from other material authored by the man himself—before it finally dawned on me that the reason for my confusion was that Harmon had gotten it wrong. Couples in rom-coms don’t break up in station six; they break up in station four, as a necessary ego-stripping exercise in the education of a character who has immaturely prioritized control over organic happiness.

A desire for control, at least in romantic contexts, is perhaps the most toxic and self-defeating ego crutch of them all—a supposition that full autonomy and full adulthood are interchangeable, when in reality the truth is much closer to being the exact opposite. Our immature rom-com character doesn’t know this yet. He prioritizes control, wishes for it, pursues it, and eventually he gets it, in the form of the high-energy breakup he’s just precipitated by putting control ahead of the emotional needs of his partner. And then, in station five, he realizes that control is a Pyrrhic victory without companionship. His bed of the goddess, is empty. That’s the whole point. The breakup comes before the big growth-affirming decision, not after it.

I think the explanation for Harmon having misplaced the breakup beat of a rom-com is also the reason why so many love stories are so palpably unsatisfying: The breakup beat seems to come later in the story circle of a rom-com because it comes so much later, physically, in the story itself—which is to say that rom-com stories seldom really have a second half to speak of. Our miserable breakup-instigator gets his shit together, there in the bed of the goddess. He digs down to face the fear of relinquishing control (hesitate-then-go), and finally rushes out the door of his apartment to a world of swimmingly happy logistical coincidences and conveniently empty cabs, the better to make a twenty-second speech at the airport about how she’s the only thing that matters and he finally knows and understands and accepts that now. Then she takes him back and the movie’s over. (...Wait, what?)

This is why neither When Harry Met Sally nor The Graduate made it onto my list of the greatest hundred movies ever made. They both suck. Or, rather, they’re both perfectly good first-halves-of-movies, with twenty seconds of slapdash grafted onto their asses between them. A four-line monologue about wanting the rest of one’s life to start as soon as possible, a few fisticuffs against a glass wall in the upstairs of a church, win back the girl just like that, roll credits, home in time for dinner. There’s very little atonement and zero—literally zero—indication of any of the other story beats that I haven’t even gotten to yet. And if you’re thinking that this is a perfectly acceptable convention in the context of the genre, then I encourage you to seek out a person you broke up with ten weeks ago and tell them that only now do you understand how important they are. See how far you get with that one, Champ.

This is also why I continue to celebrate Robert Zmeckis’ Cast Away as a film that does deserve superlative status, to the lasting puzzlement of some of my most ardent readers and supporters. Because unlike most love stories, Cast Away actually does exhibit halfway decent structure.

I mean to say, if you’d sunk yourself down into a comfy oblivion on a desert island for four years, and one day the sea gods sent you the broken corner of a porta-potty, and you hesitated for a long moment before going out to sea to reclaim the love of the woman you’d left behind all those moons ago—if you even had to lose your new best friend out there on the high seas in order to stay committed to that choice—well, sorry Charlie, you’d get home to find that she’d quite moved on with her life. She’d be married to your dentist. They’d have their two kids to go with your two cars. They’d have a nice house and a nice mortgage and a couple of college funds at least started, and there wouldn’t, be, any, negotiating, any of it.

The price you’d have to pay—the choice for which you’d have to atone—is that of having missed everything that mattered back when you were still a clock-obsessed logistics nerd for FedEx before the crash. And this new self, the one you’d chosen to be, would have to pivot now: away from the crushing disappointment of having “lost her all over again,” at least if it stood any chance of continuing to grow.

That’s a fucking movie, folks. I digress.

7. What I’ve Learned About Station Seven, Crossing the Return Threshold
(Palmer: “Decisive”; Snyder: “Break to Act III”)

We’ve had our laugh. (“Hey, wasn’t that a pisser, how we almost blew the bigger deal on account of our silly little egos? Remember that? Awww—ha, ha, we were just hih-LARR-eeous, weren’t we.”) We’ve had this moment, and it’s out of our systems. Thing is, we didn’t come all this way for shits and giggles. The bigger issue is only bigger because we’ve seen it for what it is, and what it’s going to require of us. Now it’s time to suit up.

Harmon’s term for this idea is The Crossing of the Return Threshold, and personally I think this is a terrific place to start. If one accepts his central premise, that good stories mirror our prehistoric workday, then it stands to reason that a good story will rarely cross into the special world and then later fail to return to the known one. It happens, but with a rarity that seems to suggest exceptions to Harmon’s rule. The hero’s familiar situation, be it life with electricity and clean sheets in Memphis, or a return to normalcy at the LAPD, will only benefit from the hero’s newly acquired status as an actor-on-the-universe if he can make his way back to it, at all. But there’s a big problem with this: The special world would miss the company.

So it stands to reason that the central feature of this seventh station would be external resistance to the hero’s return—what I like to refer to as “the clawback.” And as with so many other apparent features of story structure, clawbacks only grow more visible the more one looks for them.

What better example of this precept in action than the moment when LA Confidential’s Bud White is manipulated by Dudley Smith into discovering photographs of Edmund Exley’s indiscretions with Lynn Bracken? Smith, a denizen of the scary basement that we’ve been groping through for the past hour, might want a great many different things at this point in the story. But a newly minted, newly justice-minded team of Bud White and Ed Exley—working together to solve what really happened at the Nite Owl—is most assuredly not on the list. So what Smith does about it is to cobble together an elaborate ploy appealing to White’s older, darker self to tie up his loose ends for him.

In The King’s Speech, Archbishop Lang isn’t exactly a denizen of the underworld, but neither does he have any interest in a King He Can’t Control. And it is in service of this realization that he sets himself on the no-brainer course of trying to undermine Bertie’s friendship with his irreverent speech therapist—by exposing the therapist as lacking clinical certification to practice, inside Australia or otherwise. (True in real life, by the way.)

These clawbacks are often serious enough threats to the hero’s path that they can’t be vanquished head-to-head. (Indeed in Jack Vincennes’ case, the clawback has proven fatal.) Here is where Harmon bows to the master himself, Joseph Campbell for a device the latter refers to as “magic flight.” It’s a simple enough idea: When the denizens get too feisty for the hero to pry loose on his own, he can and often does resort to the maneuver that those of us in real life don’t utilize nearly often enough—he can reach out for a hand.

This is why so many stories have those deep-structure callbacks to isolated details or incidental players from the first act. In heist/caper properties, this is often the moment where some forgotten nobody from the hero’s past happens along and opens a locked door from the outside—often with a carefully de-saturated “what the hell are you doing in there,” thus seasoning the magic flight with a second beat of audience release into the bargain. Just as often the reach is for a prop, or an internal character quirk (like Jack Burton’s quick reflexes), or sometimes even just a leftover thematic idea. Luke Skywalker has spent the last half-decade of his life so bored and lonely that he “used to bulls-eye womp rats in [his] T-16 back home.” We didn’t see it, but we have no trouble believing it because it fits the guy we knew before he crossed the threshold.

Clawbacks call for a decisive response, and this is where the character often displays what I’ve come to refer to as “the affirmative choice”: A clear-eyed action that transcends the uncertainty of stations five and six. Edmund Exley makes it in the records room when he’s confronted by Bud White about the photos of his tryst with Lynn Bracken. White makes it when he dispatches Exley to check on Bracken, after having struck her, instead of going to check on her himself as a means of covering up his bad behavior.

Bertie makes it when, presented with the speech he must deliver at the outbreak of World War Two, says to his handlers, simply, “Get Logue here immediately.” Regal, unwavering, above all thoroughly inhabiting his authority as the head of a now mortally imperiled state. There’s a huge, dare we say climactic struggle still ahead, but there’s no longer any questioning this dood’s resolve. That part’s over for good, now.

8. What I’ve Learned About Station Eight, Master of Both Worlds
(Palmer: “Complete”; Snyder: “Finale,” “Final Image”)

It may seem pretentious but I believe it’s also true, that a storyteller who has carefully and conscientiously developed the parameters of his character, and then hung those traits on the framework of story stations one through seven, will almost certainly have a clear and maybe even unexpected vision of the hero’s final showdown—without even really trying to come up with it independently. This is not quite to say that good climaxes write themselves, but it’s about as close to saying it as I would dare without a book-jacket photo to back it up.

Consider: At the end of LA Confidential, we’ve come to know a justice-empowered duo of once-antagonistic cops who’ve recently deployed their unfamiliar skills to uncover a horrific conspiracy directly involving their own boss. Wouldn’t they ... gosh, I dunno: wouldn’t they bring their new skills, and their new confidence in themselves and each other, and their recently reaffirmed choices to be those new people, directly to the job of taking-down the conspiracy? Isn’t that exactly what they, specifically, would do? Of course it is. And that’s exactly what happens. Having failed the big test twice before, it is here—crucially—when they pass. Because, at last, they’re ready to.

I can imagine at least some readers wondering if the shootout at the Victory Motel isn’t what would have had to happen anyway, regardless of all this other homework. We might in other words be tempted to wonder if this same scene could happen to any two characters who’d made it this far and learned this much and wound up in this place. And it’s a tempting thing to think precisely because it narrows the range of possible story climaxes and in so doing it liberates the storyteller from investing any further intent in the resulting choice. But, no.

For proof, one need look no further than the climax of the third Bourne Identity movie, The Bourne Ultimatum. In that scene, Jason Bourne and his one-time pursuer Pamela Landy find themselves cornered in front of a New York City office building with the certain knowledge that a band of uber-villains from the very top of the dark state are seconds away from showing up and canceling both their tickets. It’s a perfect analog for the cornering of Bud White and Edmund Exley at the Victory Motel—but for the small problem that nothing remotely like the same scene subsequently plays out.

I mean, can you imagine Pamela Landy, her clothes tattered, covered in soot and smeared blood and barricaded against an up-turned desk, breathlessly clutching a .45 desperately to herself while Jason Bourne ties an improvised bandage to her wounded shoulder and says something droll like, “...Well you did say you always wanted to make a difference, now, didn’t you.” We can imagine it because we’ve seen it sixty times—but in this particular movie it wouldn’t have worked. That’s not who these two characters are. Pamela Landy is a high-road wonk who wouldn’t shoot the devil himself. Jason Bourne is a lone wolf who jettisons his would-be protectors in a vain attempt to protect them in return. We’d find their version of the shootout at the Victory Motel schmaltzy, but not because it’s inherently schmaltzy. We’d find it schmaltzy because it wouldn’t fit.

No, Landy has to go off and find a secure fax machine—I mean, are you kidding, a fucking fax machine—with which to send off the incriminating dirt about the onrushing bad guys, while Bourne adjourns deeper into the building for a confrontation over which he might have more solitary sway. If you told your best friend that version of the story before the two of you went to see the movie he’d look at you like you’d lost your mind for pitching it, but it works. It works because it’s who they are.

All of which is a way of saying that with the hard work of character outlining in Parts I and II of this essay, and with scrupulous attention to stations one through seven of the story circle, the climactic moment where our newly changed hero wields his newly acquired tools to save the day may not quite write itself, but it certainly suggests itself. Indeed, if the craftsman sits back and simply lets the characters do their thing, the story’s climax may seem like the most natural and least expected aspect of the story, at the same time. That’s how storytellers know they’re really onto something. That’s when all of this starts to get fun.

IIII. A few words about keeping all of this just between us

So, there you have it. A character-first, character-second, structure-third treatise for the planning and organization and delivery of a compelling story, written by a guy whose never done it. So why on earth would I suggest “keeping it between us”? Because in my short experience, thinking out loud about the nuts-and-bolts of story is fraught with far greater social risk than might immediately come to mind. 

True artists don’t like metrics. They don’t like the idea that their own efforts might be hung on an undeservedly procedural frame, and they don’t like the idea of aspiring artists constraining themselves to artificially narrow bandwidths of potential.

They’re not wrong. If you saw the first draft of a Lorrie Moore story in workshop and, perhaps because you didn’t know who Lorrie Moore was, you proceeded to suggest in good faith that her story would benefit from a third ego-stripping along the character’s road of trials and maybe a more conspicuous clawback after the audience-release, Ms Moore would rightly roll her eyes and dismiss you and everything else you had to say. She isn’t operating on this level, and any suggestion that her work might be improved or even considered on this level is inherently unprofessional, patronizing, probably even offensive.

This essay isn’t for her. The Lorrie Moore’s of the world don’t need the help and goodness knows they didn’t read this far into our exploration of it, anyway. 

This essay is for the rest of us.

We, can, all be more successful storytellers, I’ve come to believe. And for most of us the biggest improvements are afforded by acknowledging—perhaps grudgingly—that all successful creative properties follow a recognizable trajectory, from character development through the discrete beats of a compelling tale. And they do this even when they crackle with apparent novelty the way LA Confidential did when it first burst onto film screens around the world, way back in 1997. Maybe even especially when they crackle with apparent novelty like that. Indeed, maybe that’s the whole point of this essay.

So go get ‘em, Tiger. Tell your story. It’s in you somewhere. I may not be an expert storyteller but I think at this point it’s fair to call myself an expert consumer of stories—in which capacity I might be just the right person to say that the rest of us deserve to see what you can do. Schoder’s first line in his presentation of Harmon’s ideas was, “Human society runs on stories.” True, that. 

True, and profound, and just the impetus we need to hesitate over the more difficult choice of reaching down inside ourselves, and then to go for it.

Dave O’Gorman
(“The Key Grip”)
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
August 30, 2017

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