Saturday, April 19, 2014

SCRIPTMONK GOES TO THE MOVIES -- Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The Perks & Perils of Genre-Swapping

It appears that Marvel Studios, and their partners (Paramount, Disney), have begun to take their Avenger superhero properties in the same narrative direction as the Marvel comics themselves. They no longer exist as separate films, or even separate franchises, but a web of intersecting characters and story arcs that can only be fully appreciated through a familiarity with the others. You never know what character is going to pop up in what film or how one film's results are going to influence the storyline of the next. Though this is a novel (and extremely lucrative) approach, its stands to pose some very significant problems when it comes to the narrative integrity of each individual film. Namely, how to keep each individual film an independent, self-contained narrative that can be followed and enjoyed all on its own, and how to maintain the unique identity of each franchise instead of succumbing to the homogenization that comes from blending things together. Fail to do this, and each movie will no longer be so much an individual film, but only another monotypical episode in an extremely expensive soap opera.

Marvel's latest installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to achieve some separation from the pack by swerving its plot and tone outside the typical superhero box – with debatable results. Winter Soldier does this by employing what could be considered a clever trick – or a cheap and lazy one, depending on who you may ask. Though this trick may make Winter Soldier seem very fresh from one perspective, it can be incredibly stale from another.

First off, Winter Soldier is nothing like its predecessor Captain America: The First Avenger. If you removed the title character's name, you would not even be able to tell they are part of the same franchise. Personally, I am happy about this since I did not care much for the first installment. The First Avenger seemed content connecting the superhero-origin dots in the kind of corny, formulated high adventure that went out of style when Spielberg stopped making them in the early 90s. In complete contrast, Winter Soldier is not even a superhero film. Sure, it has superheroes. It contains the fantasy elements found in every superhero film in terms of its action and characters. But in terms of its plot, Winter Soldier is really a POLITICAL THRILLER masquerading in superhero clothes.

Genre-swapping can be a neat trick. Keep in mind that we are talking about genre-swapping, not genre-mixing. Swapping genres means a story presents the external, superficial traits of one genre while following the internal structure of different genre altogether. When done well, genre-swapping can result in what appear as fresh and original films. Star Wars may have been set in space, but in terms of its themes and narrative, it had nothing in common with contemporary science fiction. It took the superficial traits of sci-fi and layered them over the internal structure of the fantasy sword-and-sorcery subgenre. The Coens' The Big Lebowski may seem like a slacker comedy on its surface, but underneath that surface, it operates by the rules of a classic film noir.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has mixed success with this strategy. This is mostly because it does little more than trade one tired formula for another. Anyone familiar with the political thriller subgenre will have no problem spotting all the standard elements: an organization with god-like power, a conspiracy from within, the morally questionable mentor figure, the villain who is but a pawn of the true evil, and the hero stuck in the middle who must go rogue to become an enemy of the organization which he was once loyal. It is basically the same story arc as every season of “24”, except Jack Bauer can run a lot faster and has far stupider fashion sense. The fact of the matter is that genre-swapping does not automatically create something new and original on its own. It has to be done right. To that end, anyone attempting to create such a film should follow three pieces of advice:


Swapping genres will not impress an audience if it is too obvious that you are simply taking the clothes off one group of cliches and putting them on the body of another. To put things a different way, Captain America: The Winter Soldier tries to take the cap off of a blue pen and put in on a red one and pretend it is writing in a whole new color. It is not. It is still the same old red ink. Winter Soldier does very little to hide how it borrows most of its content from the political thriller. The plot hits all the same marks and the cast of characters have all been adapted to the standard political thriller roles. The only differences are the level of fantasy given to the story world and the way the political thriller's usual chases and moments of violence/suspense have been expanded into full-blown superhero-style action sequences.

To work best, the two genres must be allowed to intermingle – not in their totality, but in the place where the two meet. It is where peanut butter meets jelly. We have the story's deep internal structure, and layered over the top is the story's external world. It is where the two meet that can make such a story feel unique. The traits inherent in the surface genre should be allowed enough influence over story events that they cause the internal genre to adjust how it executes its own rules. For example, most casual viewers of The Big Lebowski never notice how closely the film's plot follows the classic model of a film noir. In fact, it takes effort to really see the noir under the surface because the execution of that model is constantly being subverted, undermined, and flipped on its head by the slacker comedy elements visible on its surface – most notably a protagonist who couldn't be a more bizarre fit for the internal genre. The noir underneath must adjust to these incongruous elements into something off its usual center. Thus, Lebowski does not seem to be a noir trying to be a slacker comedy, or a slacker comedy trying to be a noir, but something completely new. The blue ink meets the red and creates an entirely new color.

#2 If you are going to combine two genres, DO BOTH OF THEM WELL

Swapping genres does not mean you can ignore the requirements of one genre for the sake of the other. When swapping genres, the storyteller must pull double-duty. He or she must meet the visual, tonal, and character requirements of the surface genre; the narrative, structural, and thematic requirements of the internal genre; do them both well; and execute all of this so the elements of the two sides support and enhance each other, not distract or undermine.

The Winter Soldier serves its surface genre pretty well. The action sequences are top-notch. It does an excellent job of absorbing the audience into its fantasy universe. And its choice of characters,
though they have been fit into typical political thriller roles, maintain the larger-than-life personalities of their source genre, keeping them far more than plot-functional archetypes.

However, as a political thriller, The Winter Soldier is rather mediocre. Though its plot hits all the proper notes for its first three-quarters, apart from the superhero element the story offers nothing a viewer has not seen a dozen times before. It's a purely by-the-numbers affair. Furthermore, the story is advanced on several occasions through coincidences and questionable plot contrivances that would cause a normal political thriller (being a genre more grounded in reality) to instantly lose credibility. This usually occurs whenever Winter Soldier tries to inject story devices from its surface genre that do not fit well with an otherwise pure political thriller. The most egregious case is the revelation of the identify of the Winter Soldier. Though this kind of too-corny coincidence that may be common in the comics, it stinks like a wet turd in the more logically-grounded political thriller.

However what ultimately causes Winter Soldier's political thriller plot to result in a less than satisfactory end is the same malady found in many political thrillers: the execution of the big conspiracy. Conspiracies are difficult things to pull off narratively. They must be complex enough to be a mental puzzle for the audience, yet still be clear and simple enough for the audience to follow without confusion. Furthermore, there is the issue of stakes. Unless the audience is orientated well to understand and, more importantly, care about what is at stake, the conspiracy will feel like much ado about nothing. The Winter Soldier struggles to get the audience to really care about the stakes behind its conspiracy; and in terms of its plot, errs on the side of simplicity in the end. When we do finally learn what the Big Evil is really up to, it turns out to be little more than a cheap contrivance to set up the obligatory ultra-battle that comprises Winter Soldier's final act. This brings us to the third principle of genre-swapping:


If you start a story following the internal model of a certain genre, stick with that model all the way to the story's end. Do not fall back or revert to the surface genre just because it becomes convenient or when things get too hard. Under its surface, Star Wars remains a sword-and-sorcery story throughout, ending with the young warrior's destruction of the evil warlord's impenetrable fortress. Lebowski also maintains its noir model, ending with a classic detective's inquest (of course, this is followed by a long comic denouement, but even it retains its noir elements). The Winter Soldier on the other hand all but abandons its political thriller model as it enters its third act. This was no doubt because, as a superhero franchise, it was felt mandatory to end with the kind of explosion-filled CGI schmozz expected from the surface genre. All elements of the political thriller then became secondary concerns; no longer even attached to the story's protagonist, but instead delegated to supporting characters (Black Widow and Nick Fury) in a way that is often clumsy and underserved. With a political thriller setup and a superhero film end, The Winter Soldier's third act is less than completely satisfying to either genre. The political thriller we have followed for ninety minutes is allowed to wither. Meanwhile, all the big superhero set piece action feels to be a lot of “Sound & Fury Signifying Nothing”since it had not been set up in the first three-quarters of the film in the way it would in a more traditional superhero film to provide the proper build-up and attached emotional content. One has to wonder what kind of original, and possibly more satisfying, end Winter Soldier might have had if it had stuck to its political thriller guns all the way to the finish.

All in all, Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be seen in two ways. It is either an effort to inject a new tone and identity into the franchise in order to separate it from what are now so many similar properties, or it is the slap-dash attempt at a workable plot in order to put out just one more of Marvel's big money tentpoles. Time will tell if Marvel will try to maintain and improve upon this new approach to the Captain, or if it will fall back onto more of the same-old, same-old.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Comedy, Conflict, and Character: What We Can Learn from Sesame Street

I confess. I am a grown man who still enjoys Sesame Street. Not all of it of course. Not the tedious, repetitive stuff on the Letter A or whatnot. What I love are the short comedy scenes that have been a part of the show since its inception. This is not because I am a sucker for Muppets (even though I am). This is because they are classic bits of comedy writing that continue to be amusing even though my tastes in entertainment have greatly matured. There is a lot that can be learned from these little segments. I strongly believe that if one wishes to master sophisticated forms of storytelling such as screenwriting for film and television, it does one much good to first study the principles of storytelling in its simplest of forms. In this regard, Sesame Street demonstrates little nuggets of gold for anyone who wants to write funny scenes.

Here is one of my all-time favorite bits. Give it a watch:

Now what, as a grown adult, makes me still find this scene amusing? Sure, it is zany. Sure, the song is catchy. Sure, Ernie has a lot of charisma. But for me, what really makes this scene is Bert. The scene could have done fine with Ernie singing and dancing on his own, but the inclusion of Bert is what takes its comedy to a higher level. Why is this? This is because Bert supplies the scene with conflict. Everyone should know by now that conflict is the lifeblood of a dramatic scene. It is also the lifeblood of comedic scene. Bert and Ernie have conflicting goals. Bert wants peace and quiet so he can go to sleep. Ernie wants to sing and dance the night away. The scene then develops from this conflict.

However, conflict in itself is not necessarily funny. If this were so, every scene in every movie would be a laugh riot. What makes a conflict funny?

First, let's define our terms a little more clearly. “Comedy” is a very broad term, so for the sake of this article we are only interested in what we can call “dramatic comedy,” which is humor intended to emerge from interactions between two or more characters in a situational context. It is late at night. Bert wants to sleep, but Ernie is wide awake. That is the situational context of the scene. In such a context, conflicting story goals may drive the action of the scene, but the humor really comes from a conflict between the wildly different PERSONALITIES who created those goals. The more wide the difference between personalities, the more potential there will be for conflict.

The Bert & Ernie duo make use of a very common character dynamic known as “Straight Man/Funny Man.” One character, the Straight Man, is serious, down-to-earth, and tends to see things in terms of established rules and order. The Funny Man is the exact opposite. He is flighty, irrational, and usually handles situations by his own rules – rules he often makes up on the spot. Observe an even more extreme example of Straight Man/Funny Man in this segment between Kermit the Frog (the most rational of the Sesame Street Muppets) and Cookie Monster (the most irrational). (BTW, I don't understand why the show stopped teaming Kermit with Cookie Monster. They have great chemistry.)

Once again, Kermit and Cookie Monster have different scene goals. However, all the laughs come from how Cookie Monster's irrational nature causes him to refuse to cooperate with the rules and order Kermit wishes him to operate by. The humor comes from the conflict of two clashing personalities.

Comedic personality conflicts – and any personality conflict for that matter – are based on what are known as character paradigms. A PARADIGM is the personal lens through which an individual views their reality. It is a mental translation key a person uses to interpret events to decide how they should feel out the situation and how best to react. If we say a person is optimistic or pessimistic, if we call someone idealist or pragmatic, we are talking about the paradigms through which the person views the world. Differing paradigms are the reason why a dozen people can look at the same event and interpret it in a dozen different ways.

When paradigms amongst individuals are too different, it can cause a lot of friction. When characters are polar opposites, such as in the Straight Man/Funny Man dynamic, the smallest of conflicts can easily spiral ludicrously out of control because each character is facing off with someone whose interpretation of reality is so different from their own that both come to believe that the other is a raving lunatic. To demonstrate, here is a scene between Grover and the character known as “Bald Blue.” (That may not be his real name. I'm not even sure if the character has a name.) In this scene, both Grover and Bald Blue are in the same situation, but operate under very different paradigms regarding what should be considered a proper interaction between customer and waiter.

Once again we must ask, why do we find this conflict funny? Neither Grover nor Bald Blue find their interaction amusing. Rather, both are quite serious and soon become very irritated with each other. This is fun for neither of them. So are we laughing at their frustrations out of cruelty? No, not really. We are not laughing at the characters themselves, but what is created between the characters.

Dramatic comedy typically pits a character possessing a relatively rational/logical paradigm with a character possessing a paradigm that is irrational/illogical. When the logic collides with illogic, they react like matter and anti-matter. They annihilate each other, and in their wake leave an ambiguous psychological state called THE ABSURD. The Absurd is a state of mind in which our human abilities to think and reason prove completely useless. Something makes no sense at all, yet still exists. Unable to move forward in its cognitive processing, our brains register a big flashing ERROR message. But rather than freeze up or crash the way a computer would in this situation, our brains have evolved a unique way to release this cognitive logjam. We LAUGH. Laughter is a physiological response used to dismiss the tension caused by logical inconsistencies that the mind considers meaningless (aka, the Absurd). Luckily for the entire field of comedy, this reaction is accompanied by a release of endorphins, making laughter a pleasurable experience.

So in summary, comedy is about presenting an audience with moments of absurdity. In dramatic comedy, this is done by pitting two or more characters against each other with logically irreconcilable paradigms. This creates conflict, both situational and personality-based, making the scene both dramatic and humorous.

Or you can just throw in some boogie-woogie sheep. Now THAT is absurd.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Short Takes: Gene Hackman's Joke in "Bonnie & Clyde"

Here's a quick lesson worth learning:

This is about as simple as a scene can get. Clyde's brother tells him a joke. Clyde laughs. End of scene.

Now, you might watch this and wonder, what is the point? Why is this scene in the movie? Shouldn't it be cut? The scene does nothing to advance the plot. You may argue that it communicates something about the character of Clyde's brother's, but this scene does not tell us anything we did not already observe about him in the two scenes previous.

However, this innocuous diversion does have a narrative purpose. It would have been irresponsible to put it in the film if it did not. Gene Hackman's joke symbolically summarizes the road to damnation that the story's two leads have begun.

Like the little old lady, Bonnie and Clyde first take a little taste of danger and excitement. Then a little more. Then a little more. Pretty soon, they have grown to like the taste. And before they know it, they are hooked. This then leads them to their doom.

Call it a parable. Call it an analogy. Call it thematic foreshadowing. Call it whatever you want. This scene still advances the story by giving the audience new and relevant information. It establishes the theme our story will eventually prove. Like this joke, the best thematic material often works in mysterious ways, and will not be apparent to the audience until the story has ended and they can look back and see the whole picture.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The "Unstoppable Beast" Story Type -- Part II: The Covetous Beast

In my previous article, I began a breakdown of the “Unstoppable Beast” plot type, Type Number 7 on my 20 Common Patterns of Plot. To review, the Unstoppable Beast contains a story in which:

An innocent hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.

As stated in the previous article, the Unstoppable Beast plot type can be further divided into two distinct subtypes: “The Destructive Beast” and “The Covetous Beast.” The key difference is nature of the malevolent force's (aka the Beast's) intentions towards the Protagonist. In a Destructive Beast, the Beast's goal is simple. It must kill or otherwise destroy the Protagonist and will stop at nothing until this is accomplished (as seen in The Terminator, The Bourne Identity, and Punch-Drunk Love, all reviewed in the last article). A Covetous Beast is much different. Instead of destroying the Protagonist, the Beast wishes to possess and control the Protagonist. It does this because, in some twisted from or another, it LOVES the Protagonist and prizes their relationship. However, the Protagonist grows to dislike this relationship and resists. This drives the Beast to actions of increasing severity in order to maintain its hold over the Protagonist, often up to and including violence and murder, demonstrating how easily unhealthy attachments can cross the thin line between love and hate.

As in my previous article, I will break down the Covetous Beast subtype through three study films. The first contains a simple narrative and features a premise which clearly belongs within this subtype. For this we will use the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction.

The second film contains a similar premise, but a far more sophisticated narrative. Here we use Billy Wilder's 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard.

Finally, we include an oddball – a film which on its surface seems to have nothing in common with the other two examples. For this I have chosen the 2001 Academy Award-winner A Beautiful Mind.

Early notes on the discrepancies between these three films:
Plot patterns are not external “formulas” applied consciously by their creators. They are instead consistent patterns these stories naturally developed as their writers searched for the most dramatic and effective ways to executive particular types of stories. That being said, any analysis of plot types must remain flexible to the unique dramatic requirements of the particular story at hand. To compare Fatal Attraction and Sunset Boulevard, Sunset can be seen as a more sophisticated narrative because it gives its Beast character a secondary through-line that remains independent though intertwined with the main narrative (Norma Desmond's ill-fated attempt to return to motion pictures.) To serve this extra line of action, Sunset contains an additional sequence in its Act 2B exclusive to this line, as well as a secondary climax sequence in which this line is resolved after the Protagonist has met his death.

In the case of A Beautiful Mind, the film proves difficult to analyze unless one first realizes that the film actually contains two separate stories told episodically. It opens with a 26-minute prologue story on the Protagonist John Nash's experiences at Harvard. This story is self-contained with its own three-act structure. Once it has finished, the story proper begins – that is, the main narrative on his work, marriage, and the “mission” that consumes his sanity.

For the sake of clarity, we will disregard these discrepancies for the remainder of this article and focus only on the shared pattern amongst these films. There is also the unique consideration of who or what qualifies as the Beast in A Beautiful Mind, but that will be explained below.


The Protagonist

The Protagonist of a Covetous Beast typically begins the story as a rather isolated person. If not isolated physically, the Protagonist is at least isolated from others spiritually. Sunset Boulevard's Protagonist Joe Gillis begins his story already withdrawn and cynical. He has given the writing game its best shot, but as only grown bitter towards what he has discovered to be a business without pity. For A Beautiful Mind's John Nash, the Protagonist's intelligence and what seems to be a mild case of autism have made him unable to relate to other human beings, turning him into a self-isolated misanthrope. Though the creators of Fatal Attraction went to great lengths to show Protagonist Dan Gallagher as a loving husband and father in order to make him “likeable” and foster audience sympathy, it is safe to claim that Dan at least feels spiritually isolated from his home life. Otherwise, it is impossible to believe he would agree to an extramarital affair with Alex (Glen Close) so quickly. On top of their isolation, these Protagonists have a desire to find something more in life. Joe Gillis is sick of being a cheap hack with no respect. John Nash desires to set himself apart by making a discovery of true genius. Dan Gallagher wants find the risk and excitement he no longer gets from his settled-down domestic situation. It is these two qualities that lead the Protagonists to their first encounter with the Beast.

The Beast

The Covetous Beast character is defined by two equal, yet somewhat contradictory traits. He or she first has an inflated sense of self-worth. Yet at the same time he or she is extremely insecure. Because of this insecurity, the Beast can only feel its sense of worth through the love and attention it receives from other persons. Alex is the most vibrant woman in the world when Dan gives her attention, but falls apart the moment the attention is taken away. Norma Desmond was once adored by millions, but now surrounds herself with lies because she cannot deal with the thought of this no longer being so.

Though the Beast needs others so badly, it does not care at all about other people's wants, needs, or feelings. This character is a sociopathic parasite. It feeds off others so it may not die of its own insecurity. This is what causes the Beast to eventually turn violently on the Protagonist it supposedly loves. It would rather kill what it loves than endure the thought that it is not loved in return.

Now we come to the question of the identity of the Beast in A Beautiful Mind, and quite possibly the reason this film tends to baffle critical attempts at analysis. Remember that the battle cry of screencraft must be Semper Gumby - “Always Flexible.” John Nash's Beast must be taken in a figurative sense. His Beast is his MADNESS itself. John's madness can be considered a character, appearing throughout the narrative in the forms that turn out to be John's imaginary friends. Like Alex and Norma Desmond, John's madness is a parasite that wishes to consume and control John's life. With the same sense of insecurity, it demands John's attention, because without it the Beast will cease to exist. Just like Alex in Fatal Attraction, whenever John tries to turn away from his madness, it comes back screaming “I will not be ignored!”

However, it should not be assumed that the affection between Protagonist and Beast flows only one way. Though the Protagonist may at times distrust, hate, or even fear the Beast, the Protagonist still feels some sort of attachment, love, or pity for it. The Protagonist recognizes what a pathetic and insecure creature the Beast really is, causing the Protagonist to time and again return to the Beast and give it the attention it desperately craves, an act which only drags the Protagonist deeper and deeper into the unhealthy relationship will threaten the Protagonist's doom.

The Wedge Character

This character is not absolutely essential to the Covetous Beast subtype, and there is a good deal of leeway regarding how much influence the character has over story events. The Wedge Character is a relationship the Protagonist has outside of his relationship with the Beast. It presents the Protagonist with an alternative – a positive, healthy relationship based on mutual support and respect rather than exploitation. In all three of our study films, this character is a Love Interest or Spouse (the young Betty Schaefer in Sunset, John's love interest and then wife Alicia in Mind (Jennifer Connelly), and Dan's wife Beth in Attraction (Anne Archer)). This however is not a requirement. Any type of character can fill this role. This character is referred to as a “Wedge” because he or she becomes the force that slowly pulls the Protagonist away from the Beast and eventually separate them altogether. By the story's end, the Protagonist is forced to make a permanent choice between the healthy, supportive relationship with the Wedge, or an unhealthy destructive life with the Beast.


The plot structure of the Covetous Beast can be most easily understood in terms of a CONTRACT created between Protagonist and Beast. Story conflict arises because the Protagonist assumes the terms of the contract to be trivial and short-lived, while the Beast expects them to be far-reaching and long-term. The entire narrative can then be summarized as one character's attempts to escape the contract countered by the other's ever-escalating actions to keep the partner bound to it.


The inciting incident occurs the moment Protagonist and Beast first form this contact. Dan and Alex agree to have an extramarital affair. Norma Desmond hires Joe to help her return to Hollywood glory. John's madness (in the form of the character Parcher (Ed Harris) lures John Nash into what turns out to be a paranoid-schizophrenic “mission.” Contrary to what we may later assume, the Protagonist agrees to this arrangement willingly. Though he may not like or fully trust all the terms of the contract, he agrees because he thinks it will give him a piece of what he really wants in life. Dan gets the passion and adventure he has felt missing in his marriage. Joe Gillis will get enough money to pay off his debts and give him a break from the hack-work he hates. John Nash gets the opportunity to do something he feels is worthwhile and significant. So, hands are shaken and the contract is formed.

In the next sequence, the Protagonist carries out the terms of this contract as he sees them. To emphasize, the Protagonist believes this arrangement to be a short-term. However, the First Act ends with an event that causes the Protagonist to realize there is more to this agreement than originally thought. There are major strings attached. Strings that impact his personal freedom. Alex goes crazy when Dan tries to leave, going so far as to cut her wrists to force him to stay. Joe is forced to spend the night at Norma's mansion, and wakes to find that all of his belongings have been moved in for an indefinite stay. John Nash's madness leads him to understand that his mission has put his life under threat. Because of this turn of events, the Protagonist now regrets the contract and seeks a way out.


In reaction to the previous turning point, the Protagonist spends the first sequence of Act 2A trying complete the remaining duties of his contract as quickly as possible so he may have it over and done with. But once again, the Protagonist has misunderstood the Beast's true intentions. The Beast begins to encroach upon the protagonist's personal life to a greater and greater degree. Norma's interactions with Joe become increasingly uncomfortable and inappropriate. Alex will not leave Dan alone at work or at home. John Nash's madness causes him to grow increasingly paranoid and afraid. Whether the Protagonist realizes it or not, the Beast is tightening a snare around him, causing him to lose not only his personal freedoms, but in some cases his very identity or sense of self.

But the Protagonist has only begun to understand his reasons for regret. At this point, the Protagonist still believes he has some control over the contract and will be able to find a way out. Only then, the act turns with a dramatic event that decisively changes the Protagonist from a willing partner in the contract to the contract's PRISONER. Alex tells Dan she is pregnant and expects him to leave his wife and help her raise the baby. Joe Gillis, now without a car or a home of his own, is told by Norma she plans to “take care of him” as he were now her live-in boyfriend. John Nash's madness becomes so pervasive that he must be institutionalized.

In the sequence that follows, the Protagonist continues to resist, largely because he refuses to believe or accept the powerless situation in which the Beast has put him. Joe puts up a pointless fight as Norma turns him into her private boytoy. Dan changes his telephone number and tries to find a way out of Alex's pregnancy. John Nash insists that he is still in control of his own mind and does not need professional help. But all of this resistance is futile. The Beast has now gained total control over the Protagonist's body, mind, and soul.

Finally, things reach a breaking point. The Beast takes an action that pushes the Protagonist too far and forces him to admit his desperate situation. This causes the Protagonist to declare their contract null and void, turn his back on the Beast, and make a clean escape. This event becomes the story's Mid-Second Act Turning Point. Joe Gillis flees Norma's warped New Year's party, supposedly for good. Dan threatens to kill Alex if she should continue her actions and moves his family to the country. John Nash agrees to medication and shock therapy to make the madness go away.


Act 2B begins as the Protagonist escapes the Beast and attempts to resume something resembling a normal life. The Wedge character plays an important part in this since he/she has a stabilizing and nurturing influence on the Protagonist. By introducing or re-introducing a healthier and more stable path, the Protagonist is given an alternative to the Beast – though it be a more mundane one that may force him to compromise the desire he felt at the beginning of the story.

However, this does not last long. The Beast has too strong a hold on the Protagonist and soon forces the two to reunite. Alex finds Dan's new home and begins a campaign of harassment. Norma attempts to kill herself, causing Joe to rush back to her side. John Nash struggles to live without the Beast and stops taking his medication. This event creates a turning point in the middle of Act 2B.

The return to the Beast is an act of giving in, and thus in the following sequence the Protagonist openly admits his helplessness and offers full surrender. Joe fully accepts a place as Norma's lapdog. Dan confesses everything to his wife Beth. John Nash obeys his madness and throws himself back into his paranoid-schizophrenic mission.

However, one character still has some fight in them: the Wedge Character. The Wedge loves and cares about the Protagonist and is willing to take actions that will pull the Protagonist away from the Beast and eventually bring him his salvation. These actions may be intentional (in the cases of Beth and Alicia) or incidental (in the case of Betty Scheafer). This inevitability leads to direct conflict between the Beast and the Wedge Character as both fight for the Protagonist's soul. Norma becomes jealous of the time Joe spends with Betty and wishes to ruin the relationship. Alex and Beth face off on the phone and Beth threatens to kill her. Alicia discovers that John's madness has returned and tries to stop it.

The act ends with the Beast committing a unconscionable act that threatens to destroy the positive, stable relationship the Protagonist has created with the Wedge. Norma “outs” Joe's shameful life to poor innocent Betty. Alex steals away Dan's daughter for an afternoon as an act of intimidation – an event which leads to Beth's hospitalization. John's madness nearly causes him to drown his only child. The act then ends with a DILEMMA for the Protagonist. He cannot go on trying to follow both paths. Which will he finally choose?


Despite what one may assume, this dilemma is no easy decision. How can the Protagonist completely abandon, or in some cases destroy, the someone or something he has previously felt such care, pity, or even love for? Even when an enraged Dan breaks into Alex's apartment and the top of the third act and strangles her in retribution, he cannot bring himself to finish the act. He still pities her.

It is precisely this pity that triggers the decision that turns the course of Act 3. The Protagonist finally recognizes the Beast for what it really is: a sad, wretched, insecure creature with no power of its own except for that which it steals from the Protagonist. Without the Protagonist's attention, the Beast will wither and die. The Protagonist wishes to be free of the Beast, but to do this the Protagonist does not need to kill it. He needs to only turn his back for good. Joe walks out on Norma. Dan does the same with Alex. Rather than hide from his madness with medication, John Nash chooses overcome his madness by ignoring its manifestations like the imaginary nothings they are.

But the Beast will not go away quietly. It comes back, fighting for its survival in the most extreme way. Norma chases after Joe with a pistol. Alex attacks Dan and Beth with a butcher knife. John's delusions verbally and mentally assault him with a fury that threatens to undo his attempts to regain his life.

In each of our study films, this conflict reaches its climax in a different way. In Sunset, Norma kills Joe rather than let him escape. In Attraction, Dan and Beth kill Alex. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash finds a middle road that manages to balance his madness with his genius in a way that leads him to a happier, healthier life. In any case; win, lose, or draw; the Protagonist is finally free of the Beast and the contract has been ended. Regardless of how the story ends, the resolution suggests that a little piece of the Beast will always be with the Protagonist, haunting him,whether it be in Dan's memory, Joe's posthumous regrets, or in the lingering ghosts John Nash once thought were real.


The Covetous Beast offers a more complicated narrative than the Destructive Beast, and not surprisingly, offers more complicated themes. Identifying these themes requires more investigation than I am able to go into here. However, a simple observation seems to suggest that while the Destructive Beast gives messages on each individual's right to exist and live as they see fit, the Covetous Beast offers stories on each human being's right for self-determination. We should be allowed to find our own paths to happiness, not those forced upon us by the tyranny of others. Yet still, this cannot be the case in full. Stories about personal freedom abound in Hollywood cinema, but the Covetous Beast seems to encourage an exploration of the degree to which happiness can be found by compromising our self-determination for the sake of others. Levels of self-determination range from the isolation seen in the Protagonist at the start of the story, the complete slavery to the Beast in the middle, to the healthy give-and-take between Protagonist and the Wedge Character at the end. As I encounter more stories of this subtype, this matter will undoubtedly become clearer.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

The "Unstoppable Beast" Story Type -- Part I: The Destructive Beast

Those who make regular visits to this blog should already be familiar with my concept of the 20 Common Plot Types. In my studies of narrative, I have discovered that nearly every well-made traditional Western-style film for the past fifty years or more (which for brevity we may call “Hollywood film,” though that label can be too limiting) contains a plot that fits with shocking consistency into one of twenty patterns. The most surprising thing about this discovery is how extremely different films can share the exact same pattern, plot point for plot point, even though they seem to have nothing else in common on their surfaces.

In this article and the next, I will explore another of these plot types. This time, it is #7 on my list, which I have labeled The Unstoppable Beast.

As defined in previous articles, The Unstoppable Beast contains a story in which:
A innocent hero is targeted by some malevolent force, a force that will not stop until the hero is destroyed. Plot develops as each escalated attempt by the protagonist to escape the force is denied. Finally, in the end, the hero chooses to fight back.

As I have found in other plot types, the Unstoppable Beast can be broken down further into two distinct subtypes. In the first subtype, the malevolent force has the single-minded goal of killing, ruining, or in some other sense destroying the protagonist, and will stop at nothing until this is accomplished. I will call this the The Destructive Beast. In the second, the malevolent force does not wish to physically destroy the protagonist, but rather to possess the protagonist. The force's goal is to destroy the protagonist's personal will so it may own, control, or even love the protagonist against the protagonist's will. This will be called The Covetous Beast. Though these subtypes share the same general premise, they differ significantly in their essential characters and major plot events. For this reason, Part One of this article will focus on the Destructive Beast while the Covetous Beast will be explored next month.


To demonstrate both subtypes, I will make use of three study films. The first will contain a simple storyline that is easy to recognize as a member of this group. Here, the obvious choice is James Cameron's The Terminator (1984).

The second film must contain a more sophisticated story, yet one with clear similarities to the first. Here we will use The Bourne Identity (2002).

Finally, our third film will be an oddball, one that on its surface seems to have nothing in common with the other two. Here I have chosen Paul Thomas Anderson's 2002 misfit romance Punch-Drunk Love.

(These are, of course, not the only examples. I have found this subtype in thrillers (The Marathon Man), comedies (Pineapple Express), comic-book fantasy (The Incredible Hulk), even family films (Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events)

All three of these films share identical threads in terms of their main story conflict. A relatively innocent protagonist is targeted by a vicious, single-minded antagonist (“The Beast”) who pursues the protagonist with escalating actions until one of them are destroyed. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is pursued by a killer cyborg programmed to kill her at any cost. Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, Ted Conklin uses the CIA's god-like powers to find and kill Jason Bourne. In Punch-Drunk Love, the sweet and simple Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is terrorized by a sleazebag extortionist (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who seems hellbent on ruining Barry's life.

What first must be noted is what it means to call these protagonists “innocent.” Put simply, this means from an audience standpoint, these characters do not deserve the persecution they receive from the Beast. Sarah Connor wouldn't harm a fly and wants nothing more than to live her simple life. Barry Egan is as meek as a sheep and simply wishes the world would leave him be. When we first meet Jason Bourne, his memory has been wiped as innocent as a newborn's and merely wants to learn who he is and how he fits into the world. Yet this is not to say that the Beast targets the protagonist without reason. In every case, the protagonist does something (or in the case of Terminator, will do something) that, while seemingly harmless, brings him or her to the Beast's attention and leads the Beast to decide the protagonist deserves destruction. Sarah Connor will give birth to the man who will someday be the Beast's greatest threat. Therefore, she must be terminated. Jason Bourne investigates his identity, leading Conklin to believe Bourne has gone rogue and must be eliminated. Barry Egan calls a phone sex line out of loneliness, causing his Beast to label him as a lowlife pervert who deserves exploitation.

A second essential trait of these stories is the single-minded focus of the antagonist. Once the Beast locks onto the protagonist, its efforts never waiver. It will pursue, and continue to pursue, with no change except for escalation. They are heat-seeking missiles. No matter how the protagonist zigs or zags to escape, the Beast will keep after the protagonist until he or she is utterly destroyed. Terminator's killer cyborg is Hollywood's prime example of such an antagonist, but even the low-level sleazeball who terrorizes Barry Egan demonstrates this same vicious obsession. He could at any time decide enough is enough and stop harassing Barry, yet seems to take it as a point of personal pride to go after Barry harder and harder every time Barry makes any attempt to stand up for himself.

It should also be noted that, like most concepts in screencraft, the concept of the Beast is flexible in terms of its execution. It can be interpreted literally or figuratively. The Beast may be a single character acting alone, or it may be a larger collective of which the antagonist acts on behalf. It's not the killer cyborg's idea to kill Sarah Connor. It is acting on the orders of the artificial intelligences that rule the future. Ted Conklin does not pursue Bourne out of a personal vendetta, but acts as a representative of the entire CIA. The Beast may directly attack the Protagonist, or it may act through proxies. Conklin's assassins and the goons that harass Barry Egan act as extensions of the Beast. Depending on how abstract your thinking, the Beast can even be a cosmic force. I have often mused that The Shawshank Redemption acts as an Unstoppable Beast, where the Beast the feeling of hopelessness and despair that seeks to devour Andy Dufrene.

Besides the Protagonist and the Beast, the Destructive Beast subtype typically contains a third major player. In his or her flight from the Beast, the Protagonist attaches him or herself to a person who will serve as a Sole Companion character. This character, often doubling as a Love Interest, becomes the only person the Protagonist can truly count on. We have Reese in Terminator, Marie in Bourne, and Lena in Punch-Drunk Love. The Sole Companion not only assists the Protagonist in his or her struggle, but more importantly provides the support, love, and reassurance the Protagonist desperately needs to continue against insurmountable odds. Though not absolutely essential for this plot subtype to function (for example, The Marathon Man forces the Protagonist to fight the Beast all on his own, and stories with group protagonists seem to have no need for the character), this relationship usually serves a crucial narrative role. It not only adds complexity to what might be an overly-simple plotline, but also becomes a key factor in both the Protagonist's character transformation and the ultimate expression of the story's theme (this is discussed in greater detail later in this article).

I have also noticed a repeating dichotomy between the Protagonist and the Sole Companion. Typically, one of the pair is relatively unstable (Reese, Marie, Barry), while the other is more psychologically grounded. One is a far more capable (Reese, Bourne, Lena), while the other, not so much. Which member of the pair has which trait is dependent on the story's premise, yet there is clear evidence that these “odd couple” pairings are fairly common to this subtype. The relationship need not necessarily be romantic either. It may be “bro-mantic,” (like that between the two leads in Pineapple Express), a paternal or maternal bond, (like that which forms between John Connor and his cyborg protector in Terminator 2), or one based on trust and mutual respect, (such as the friendship between Andy and Red in The Shawshank Redemption.)



Setup Sequence
Structurally, a Destructive Beast's setup sequence does not differ much from the norm. The Protagonist may already be targeted by the Beast, giving the setup an air of menace, or the targeting may not have yet occurred. If the Protagonist has already been targeted, neither the Protagonist nor the audience will know this. Instead, the Beast's intentions are kept a mystery. In some cases, the Beast may not need to appear in the setup at all. Likewise, the setup may or may not introduce the Sole Companion character. If the character does appear, no meaningful relationship has yet to exist between Sole Companion and Protagonist.

Inciting Incident
The inciting incident occurs with an action through which the audience becomes aware that the Protagonist has been targeted by the Beast. With this event, the Beast takes its first decisive action to ensnare the Protagonist. The cyborg starts killing women named Sarah Connor. Conklin starts tracking Bourne. The phone sex operator tries to coerce Barry into giving her money. However, at this early point, the Protagonist either remains largely unaware of the threat or does not yet realize how serious this threat may be. Sarah Connor hears of the murders, but could not yet possibly understand the full scope of the situation. Jason Bourne suspects he may be in danger, but has no idea why. Barry becomes agitated, but thinks can solve the problem by simply canceling his credit card. The full threat does not become apparent to the Protagonist - or the audience - until the End of First Act Turning Point.

The End of First Act Turning Point
Two important events occur at the end of the first act, separately but typically in succession (the order is unimportant). First, the Beast officially begins the hunt by launching its first major “attack” on the Protagonist. The cyborg makes its first attempt to kill Sarah Connor at the nightclub. Conklin activates three assassins to put “Bourne in a body bag.” Barry's Beast sends goons to beat and rob him.

The end of the first act must also feature a moment where the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion officially begins. This could be something decisive (Reese's “Come with me if you want to live”), something more unassuming (Bourne recruits Marie to drive him to Paris), or the start of a personal relationship (Lena asks Barry out to dinner and Barry accepts). Regardless of how it occurs, the important thing is that these two characters have transitioned from separate individuals into a pair.


Part 1
The Beast is still chasing the Protagonist, whether this be physically occurring on screen like in Terminator, or largely unseen in the background like in Bourne and Punch-Drunk. However, at this moment, this action is of secondary importance. More importantly, the first sequence(s) of Act 2A is where the Protagonist and Sole Companion must grow comfortable with each other and reconcile the nature of their relationship. One or both characters will have doubts or fears over whether this relationship should be continued. Sarah fears that Reese is insane. Jason Bourne seems to be more trouble than Marie wants to handle. Barry is scared of women. However this dilemma must be solved quickly when the Beast attacks again, creating the turning point that ends the sequence.

Part 2
The Beast makes its second major attack. The cyborg invades the police station. The first assassin attacks Bourne in his home. The goons beat up and rob Barry. This stretch of the narrative becomes all about escape. It may last for one sequence or two, but by the time Act 2A ends, the Protagonist is forced to come to two strong conclusions. First, the Protagonist becomes convinced that he/she and the Sole Companion must stick together. This solidifies the relationship between the two characters. (I find it inconsequential that Lena is unaware of Barry's struggle with the Beast in Punch-Drunk Love. She fulfills the same function as Reese or Marie regardless. It is impossible to think that Barry could overcome his fight with the Beast had he not chosen to continue to receive Lena's love and support.) Second, the Protagonist realizes that the Beast will never stop making attacks upon him or her. It will keep coming and coming. Because of this, the Protagonist can see only one reasonable option at the moment: tactical retreat.


Part 1
The Protagonist escapes to a safe location with the Sole Companion. Sarah and Reese find haven, first under a highway overpass and then in a cheap motel. Bourne and Marie also hole up in a hotel. Barry runs further than everyone, fleeing all the way to Hawaii to find some peace with Lena. Here, the Protagonist can regroup and come up with some sort of plan. The Protagonist is able to do so only because Beast has also found itself in a situation where it must regroup. The Beast has momentarily lost the trail of its target and must take action to once again pick up the scent.

Like Part 1 of Act 2A, this sequence is far more about the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion than the Protagonist and the Beast. In this brief respite, the pair transform into a domestic couple, “playing house” even. In all three study films, this is where Protagonist and Sole Companion consummate their romantic relationship. Yet this sweet stability is broken by the next turning point. The Beast learns of their location. It is coming for them yet again.

Part 2
Though some time may remain for the Protagonist to take actions and implement his or her new plan before the Beast arrives, eventually the Beast will come and launch a stronger and far more brutal assault than ever before. The Terminator, being the shortest and simplest of our study films, takes an uncomplicated route by using this attack to transition into the long battle that comprises Act 3. Bourne and Punch-Drunk take somewhat longer routes that mirror each other plot point for plot point. Both Protagonists are attacked by the Beast's proxy. The Protagonist defeats these proxies, but rather than be pleased with the victory, the Protagonist is FURIOUS. This time, the Beast has not only tried to harm him, but the innocent people he cares about. Both Bourne and Barry are fed up. They want to end this. And they realize only way to do so is to square off with the Beast face-to-face. In both Bourne and Punch-Drunk, the Protagonist speaks directly to the Beast for the first time and challenges it to a fight. This challenge sets up the battle that will make up Act 3.


In general, Act 3 develops as would be expected in a restorative three-act narrative. There is an conflict-intensifying sequence that leads in to the final confrontation between Protagonist and Beast, a turning point, and then the final confrontation itself. (I should point out that the final action sequence found in The Bourne Identity is much different than the one originally written. The filmmakers decided to change the ending in reaction to the events of 9/11. It was supposed to be a more intense, explosion-filled ending, much like that seen in The Terminator, as opposed to the more subdued end seen in the final film.)

There is one significant point that must be made about these final sequences. Whether it happens midway through the act or very late, at some point the relationship between predator and prey will reverse. The Protagonist does this by entrapping the Beast. Whether it be Sarah Connor encaging cyborg inside the mechanical press, Jason Bourne cornering Conklin in the safehouse, or Barry staring down his tormentor in the back of the mattress store, this act robs the Beast of its power and ability to intimidate. The big, bad Beast has suddenly turned pathetic and weak. With this reversal of power, the Protagonist can finally defeat the Beast, either by destroying it or forcing it to back down.


Despite appearances, the Destructive Beast plot subtype is about far more than predator and prey. Any good story is “about more than it is about.” A story that lacks any meaning beyond the observable actions of its plot is always a mediocre one. Hence, I have found two surprising traits shared by every one of these stories.


The battle with the Beast may provide the action and conflict. It may provide the excitement and commercial appeal. But the real meaning in these films emerges from seeing the warm, humane, multifaceted relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion set in contrast with the cold, inhumane relationship between Protagonist and Beast.

Left to his or her own devices, the Protagonist would in all inevitability eventually succumb to the force of the Beast. However, through the relationship between Protagonist and Sole Companion, the Protagonist's character gains something it did not have that allows him or her to defeat the Beast. To understand how and why, we must ask two questions: “For what reason does the Beast target the Protagonist?” and “For what reason does the Sole Companion remain attached to the Protagonist despite reasons not to?”

As I have mentioned, the Beast is a single-minded creature. It targets the Protagonist for a single quality which it believes warrants the Protagonist's destruction. The machines of the future target Sarah Connor because they see her as a weak nothing than can be easily wiped out. The CIA's Treadstone sees Jason Bourne as nothing more than a soulless killing machine that needs to be deactivated. Barry's extortionists see him as nothing but a pathetic wimp with whom they can do whatever they please. More importantly, the Protagonist begins the story seeing him or herself in the same way. Sarah believe she is a weak nothing. Bourne feels that he has lost all humanity. Barry sees himself as a pathetic wimp. It seems the Protagonists agrees with the Beast. If this is the case, the Protagonist may eventually give in and let the Beast win.

But if these Protagonists really are such undesirable monotypes, why do their Sole Companions risk so much to stick by their sides? The Sole Companion remains loyal to the Protagonist because he or she is the only person in the whole wide world who sees MORE in the Protagonist. Through their personal relationship, the Sole Companion realizes that the Protagonist is far more than the trait for which he or she has been targeted. Instead, the Sole Companion recognizes so many other qualities that make the Protagonist a worthwhile human. Reese sees strength and courage in Sarah Connor that Sarah herself does not admit. Marie knows that Jason Bourne is not just a killing machine, but a good man with a good heart. Lena sees charm and beauty in Barry while everyone else can only see the wimp. Through this relationship, the Protagonist's sense of self transforms from the negative monotypical view shared by the Beast, to the positive multifaceted one of the Sole Companion. Strengthened by the Sole Companion's support, the Protagonist is able to stand up and say, “I am a worthwhile individual. I do not deserve this treatment. I am greater than the Beast and can defeat it.”

Why is this transformation so important? Aside from the pragmatic narrative concerns of story structure and character arc, this relationship provides the context through which the audience receives the story's true meaning. By recognizing the value of an individual in the face of overwhelming persecution, we learn this story subtype's subtextual theme.


In every historical case of persecution, whether it be against an entire race or a single individual, the persecutor dehumanizes its victim by degrading the whole of that person's identity down to a single undesirable trait. The persecutor does not see a unique individual with many different qualities, but only a race, a religion, a political view, or some type of behavior with negative associations attached to it. By defining its victim as one undesirable trait, the victim is turned into something no better than an animal. A dog is just a dog. A roach is like any other roach. A rat can be nothing more than a rat. And like any bothersome animal, the persecutor feels justified in exterminating the person for what it sees as the greater good.

This is why social persecution is morally wrong. It is based on a lie. No person's existence is defined by a single trait by which he or she should be approved of or condemned. We are all unique individuals, possessing hundreds of personal qualities, each with its own potential to add worth and value to the world. As unique individuals, each one of us has the right to prove our value on our own terms – not by one or two isolated behaviors, but through all of them as a whole. If an individual's worth is to be judged, it should not be by some mechanical-minded aggressor with no regard for the individual's humanity, but by the people who know and understand them.

Stories of the Destructive Beast subtype exist as lessons on social persecution. They show us the value of an individual's humanity by pitting it against an unthinking, uncaring force that chooses to ignore its victim's basic right to exist – the right to live, to love, and to bring value to their world in their own way. The Beast then does not only represent evil as it exists in the narrative, but the social evils that continue to persecute innocent victims in our own world.