The Snake Oil Salesman of Hope

slice_megan_fox_transformers_revenge_fallenSegment 3:

Creating the Perfect Imbalance between Skill and Motivation

Now that you know what you’re trying to achieve, how do you go about achieving it? Break the events of your story into two simple categories:

1. Those that reflect the Inner Strength or Heroic Qualities of your protagonist.
2. Those that reflect the Inner Weakness or Nearly Fatal Flaw of your protagonist.

Whenever I read a script that drags it inevitably makes the mistake of not keeping these two categories in proper balance. We either get a long series of events that make our hero look like, well… a hero, or we get a long series of events that make her look like an insufferable loser.

The problem with either of these approaches is that there is nothing for the audience to relate to in characters who are always Strong or always Weak. We go to the movies to see people who look like us and act like us. We get bored if we can’t identify with what we see. (14) Don’t misinterpret this as some sort of Ordinary Personhood Aesthetic. I don’t mean to say that you have to be able to run into your protagonist at the laundry mat on the wrong side of the tracks. Instead, I just mean your protagonist must begin the story you’ve designed for her as a morally neutral person. She isn’t going to rob the old blind man crossing the street, but she isn’t necessarily going to hold his hand to make sure he gets across the street safely either. She is perfectly average… with one striking exception.

She has either:

1. An extraordinary skill, or
2. An extraordinary reason to accomplish a specific task.

Why do we give her this one swath of color amidst an ocean of ceaseless gray? Because, this is normal. Every single person who ever sits in a movie theatre seat is going to understand and be able to identify with a character like this. Every one of us, no matter how mediocre, average, and uninteresting we are in general, has either:

1. An extraordinary skill, or
2. An extraordinary reason to accomplish a specific task.

Constructing your protagonist in this way sets your story outside the realms of socio-economic, racial, and intellectual “realities” that people tend to believe are absolute [without ever explaining why].

We are all just humans here, and each of us knows what it means to have a skill or an unquenchable desire. If you write for all of us, then more of us will attend. You will be wildly successful, win friends, influence people and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, you will have set yourself up to write a Great Story. (15) A story that people will want to see again and again because it will show them the truth about themselves that they already know and just want confirmed. Our mothers were right:

We are special, dammit.

If only the extraordinary would coagulate around us instead of somebody else we could prove it. Your service to us, as an author, will be to allow us to live this belief through your story.

[I feel like I should offer a small defense of the audience at this point. I don’t want to be misinterpreted as implying that there is something lacking in the great mass of people who get up every day and go to work. Without these everyday heroes (16) the world would not function. Also, there would be no reason to produce Art.]

So, even though a first glance is enough to convince you that my position about the inner feelings of an audience is some sort of Marxian complaint of the form: Religion is the opiate of the masses—wherein, Art substitutes as Religion to make: Art is the opiate of the masses, it is not meant to be this sort of critique.

There is nothing wrong with having the belief that you have at least one special talent, or that you have the motivation to see a single specific task through to completion. There is nothing wrong with it because it is necessarily true.

Seen through this lens, writing is the act of affirming humanity’s belief in itself. Your job as a writer is to facilitate a person’s ability to believe in herself and her species. Because, if each of us can be the hero, then humanity (as an object or class) is, necessarily, heroic.

Writers are the snake oil salesman of Hope.

I will go as far as to wager that this is a “categorical” duty. A:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

kind of thing. It is our duty as writers to bear witness to the beauty [and occasional horror] of being an ordinary human being around whom the extraordinary can coagulate. The coagulation (17) always makes us Beautiful even when it does not make us Art.

We weight our characters in this unbalanced way in order to make perfect reflections of those pressed against the fourth wall.

I realize the way I’m describing the interaction makes it seem cheap. It’s as though I have writers prostituting their ability for the assuagement of a teeming mass of non-actualized self-aggrandizers, however, I think there is truth in my formulation of the artist/audience contract. (18)

Algorithm 3 (Creating the “Right” Imbalance)

1. Mold your character from the clay of moral neutrality.
2. Add a special skill or overpowering need.
3. Allow the extraordinary to coagulate around the ordinary.


14 Amazingly, I have not stated my First Principle of Story yet. Perhaps I will preserve this late introduction throughout the revised drafts, perhaps not. At any rate, here it is: We consume stories because we want to see what happens when extraordinary events coagulate around ordinary people. I believe we do this because we are equipped with a categorical belief that extraordinary events make ordinary people, extraordinary.

15 I feel this is as good a place as any to answer a criticism about the idea of this essay that I know [without a doubt] will form in at least one person’s mind: What if you don’t want to write a Great Story? What if you just want to make a million dollars writing the next Transformers?

My answer: It is people like you who are ruining movies. [You will have to keep reading this essay to see if that last is a joke.]

16 Yes, I am most certainly one of them. I formed all of the ideas which undergird this book while working in the freezer of a grocery distribution warehouse. I picked cases of Turkey, Ice Cream, and Stouffer’s Lasagna in 20 below zero conditions. Icicles formed on my nose and my lips while I worked. It is the kind of vocational hell you would not wish on your worst enemy.

17 I’ll save the argument for why this is true for our ensuing discussion of resonance.

18 I confine this comment to the footnotes because I don’t want to be controversial in an overt way. Neither do I want to seem to be endorsing anything which I am not actually endorsing. That said, I believe there is an interesting empirical proof of this idea about the interplay between artist and audience contained in the Story of the New Testament. If we view that piece of writing as a work of Art, and not as a document of revealed truth, we can ask why it holds such resonant power over Western Culture. I believe there are two reasons for this:

1. It offers the idea that each of us may be a hero to the same degree and in the same way as its “protagonist”
2. It is a uniquely perfect murder mystery. As far as my reading is concerned, there is no other mystery in which every member of the audience committed the crime.

If we subtract the structure and metafictive elements from the rest of the text, The New Testament can be seen to be a brilliant piece of Story Design. A reason, I believe, for its lasting effect on our culture.

[I’ve just tried to footnote the end of that last footnote and Word did not like my attempt at all.

Basically, I wanted to add that the movie The Ring attempts a similarly audience indicting plot technique. It may seem weird to juxtapose those two stories in the service of an aesthetic idea, but in this essay, everything will remain on the table until something useful is said. And, by the way, why can’t you footnote a footnote, Mr. Gates. It seems reasonable. To me.]


2 responses to “The Snake Oil Salesman of Hope

  1. Whenever I mention Transformers in these essays, I will use a provocative picture of Megan Fox. Those movies irritate me so much that I think it appropriate to reduce them to what they are: a thirteen year old boy’s fantasy world. How they’ve managed to make 4 billion dollars is, circuitously, under the microscope of these essays.

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