Verbal Brawls in Ambiguous Ink

sixth senseSegment 4:

The Artist’s Contract with her Audience:

We agree to view what you make as Art as long as you understand that we want to see ourselves in the concoction.

We enter into this transactional relationship with an artist and her work with an implicit understanding of all the things discussed so far:

1. The Right Protagonist is a character who contains an inherent contradiction between her agency and her motivation to fulfill her need.
2. The author and her audience enter into a contract with expectations on both sides. (19)
3. The expectations of the audience include a protagonist with either a unique skill or an overriding desire to accomplish a unique task.

The goal of these initial three steps in the story formation process is to come as close as possible to guaranteeing that:

4. The protagonist of your story is a universal. She can effectively substitute for large swaths of humans. (20)
Authors do this because they are required [by the contract] to set up a boomeranging reciprocity.
5. The author views herself in her creation to the same degree that the audience members view themselves in the author’s creation.

I remember how unnerved I was in my Introduction to Psychology class by the notion that the founders of the discipline had to assume we humans behave in mechanistically deterministic ways in order to contain their subject in the category “Science”. This is so contrary to the ways in which we view ourselves that I really couldn’t believe that some earnest psychologist hadn’t put forward a little extra energy for trying to set her discipline on a more solid foundation. (22) After all, what happens to the whole of your accumulated “knowledge” the day some earnest philosopher comes along and proves, emphatically, that it is impossible that humans actually behave in mechanistic ways?(23)

What is an unnerving position to hold in Psychology, however, is exactly right in literary aesthetics. As an author, you should behave as though:

Your audience expects your characters to behave in rigidly mechanistic ways.

Because, this IS what your audience expects. Whenever I have more time, I would like to use some of it thinking about this problem of audience expectations as it relates to the categorical world view this expectation implies. There is, I think, something interesting in our species’ insistence on mechanistic characters. Characters who are utterly defined by the rules of their system. (24) For now, we will just accept it as truth that all humans look for mechanistic characters in all works of art. In other words,

We want our Art to make sense.

Unpacking that sentence is going to lead to all sorts of verbal brawls with writers of an ambiguous ink. I know there are people in this audience who believe, with utmost certainty, that there can be great works of Art that don’t make any sense at all. (25) Eventually, I hope to show that this idea is not possible because it is logically contradictory. For now, we will grant these objectors that their nonsensically great story is possible in the abstract, but we will insist that, at least empirically speaking, there is no such thing as a great story that does not make sense.

I have gone this far afield from the topic of your protagonist’s major flaw because I want to show that this idea I have about how to balance your writing is actually correct. I go to all this effort because I am about to recommend that you design your story so that the flaw you imbue your protagonist with exactly matches the desire she has to complete her story. Before I drop that idea into play, let me work all this out with a specific example using The Sixth Sense. Basically, I am going to break this script down as though I were M. Knight and I were just sitting down in front of my open copy of Final Draft to begin writing.

Working Title: The Sixth Sense [I’ve come up with a great title, by the way.]

Premise: I’m going to focus on a psychiatrist who works with a disturbed kid who thinks he sees dead people. [My premise is no more than okay. I’m going to end up writing several “dead end” drafts, though, if I don’t juice this part up.]

Theme: No one knows her true self. [This is a great theme. Ten words or less and I’ll have no trouble putting it on a bumpersticker. Since I am writing a story that almost has twin protagonists (26), I will be in even better shape if I apply this theme equally to my psychiatrist and his patient.]

Protagonist’s Flaw:
We’ll start with Dr. Malcolm Crowe. His flaw is going to be that he can’t accept himself unless he cures his patients of their illnesses. In my early drafts, I am going to realize this flaw specifically through the lack of success he has in curing his newest patient, Cole Sear, of his delusion that he sees actual dead people. I am going to add in some cool scenes about how this failure in his professional life has spilled over into his personal life with his wife. It’s going to be so symbolic and cool. [Little do I realize in these early drafts how appropriate this theme, when matched with this flaw is going to turn out to be. (27) In the, possibly, apocryphal tale that will grow up around my script, it will be said that I completed dozens of drafts that didn’t quite work until one day, while I am just sitting at my computer, it occurs to me that my psychiatrist with a self-knowledge problem has been terrifically understated. This guy really doesn’t know himself; he doesn’t even know he’s dead.]

Protagonist’s Flaw Take Two:

Let’s run this exercise again, only this time we’ll use Cole Sear’s character.

I want to tie him into our theme that no one knows his true self and it doesn’t take much examination to see that I’ve made this as true of Cole as it is of Dr. Crowe. In Cole’s case I’ve written him so that he interprets his supernatural ability as a curse. It haunts him. The sense of foreboding and dread that he feels is what makes Dr. Crowe’s struggle to heal him so powerful. The script I [and remember I am temporarily M. Night] am writing now does a very good job of driving home the idea that these stakes are life and death for Cole. If he doesn’t learn something, he’s going to die. So, what do I hide up my script’s sleeve and only pull out near the end—right before that final twist… you know the twist that will end up getting my script ranked number 50 on the 100 greatest of all time. (28) Right before that twist, what do I have for my patient character (with a seeing dead people problem) to learn:

Seeing dead people is a blessing and not a curse.

Look how well my story entwines back on itself. As Dr. Crowe and Cole teach each other what each really is, both complete their arcs and become whole. In this world I’ve drawn, knowing your true self means finally having peace.

Having now completed all the leg work with the help of my temporary possession of The Sixth Sense, we are ready to get back to the promised good idea. If you will remember, we were looking to justify the following claim:

You ought to design your story so that the flaw you imbue your protagonist with exactly matches the desire she has to complete her story. (29)

It probably goes without saying that I mean “match” in the most conflicted, paradoxical, sense possible. I want your protagonist’s flaw to be the yin to your protagonist’s yang. The ebb and flow between these two properties of your protagonist is what makes your story interesting and watchable. Get the balance wrong and you’ll have a disengaged reader looking for the first available exit from whatever duty she has to read your script.

The Sixth Sense example shows how well M. Knight found the right balance. In his story both the protagonist and the next biggest character have flaws which reinforce and require each other. Dr. Crowe needs Cole as much as Cole needs Dr. Crowe. Neither of these characters is going to find peace in the world M. Knight has drawn without the other. Even more beautifully, from the standpoint of story design, the theme of the script expresses itself in the flaws of both the major characters.

Dr. Crowe doesn’t know his true self. Because of this flaw, he is able to meet Cole and help him see his true self—that his supernatural ability is a blessing and not a curse. This process [of helping Cole] pays tremendous dividends to Dr. Crowe at the end of his story when he finally uncovers the truth about his true self—that he is dead. Both characters are then allowed, by their contiguous story logics, to “live” in peace.

I will suggest that if you’re not looking at your protagonist’s flaw as the key to solving your story, then you are not looking at a solvable story. You will end up in that no man’s land of boring, endless stories, with no point and no audience. That might seem harsh, but my feeling is that most people who end up with those kind of stories rushed into the writing without doing the preliminary work, and that is why their story is boring and endless. So, if I am being harsh it is only on behalf of striving to help writers be better writers who write more entertaining stories.

We are at a point in our inquiry where we can ask ourselves, again, why? Why is it that we should spend so much effort ensuring that our protagonist’s central flaw matches with our theme? The answer is that:

The engine of a story comes from your protagonist’s flaw.

By engine I am meaning the driving principle of your story. The thing that moves it forward. (30) After a brief summation algorithm, that little nugget will move us forward into the next segment:

Algorithm 4 (Respecting the Contract)
1. Give us a protagonist who can be us, all of us.
2. Give us characters with mechanistic behavior patterns.
3. Do this to make sure your story “makes sense”. [No Deus Ex Machina]
4. Match the conquering of the flaw to the successful completion of the story.


19 I have not yet outlined any of the expectations that the writer should be able to count on from the audience.
20 A quick corollary of this is: Lasting resonance arises from creating characters who can effectively substitute for large swaths of humans in perpetuity.
21 I’ll hold my belief, on why this is so, in abeyance—to quote Seinfeld… as I make an undocumented [and almost too personal to recognize] reference to Wittgenstein. I can do this, by the way, because of the Internet.

[My spin on Ludwig’s brilliance will be that it has to do with joint ownership of the Artistic Event.]

22 My amazement at this fact was proportional to my lack of knowledge about the [accepted] fallibalist nature of Modern Scientific Inquiry.

(I suppose I should do this idea its proper justice by calling it falsifiability and attributing it to Karl Popper, but: To me falsifiability is an inferior knock-off of fallibalism and NEITHER one is a suitable girder for Truth.)

23 Needless to say, this is why I chose to continue my studies in philosophy rather than psychology.
24 In their case, the system is the work of Art they are trapped inside. It doesn’t seem like a very big reach to say that this means something about how we view the works of Art we are trapped inside. For instance, planet earth, our bodies, etc…etc…
25 These will be the same people I went toe to toe with earlier during the Heisenberg’s Matrices Objection.
26 I won’t know this fact about my script until I write several of those dead end drafts. It is at this point that I first wish Bowdlerizing Kant had been around for me to read.
27 If I would have had access to Bowdlerizing Kant while writing, I could have done it all in less than three drafts… just kidding.
28 Source is the WGA West.
29 I phrase it in the form of an ought to make a little joke about the essay’s title.
30 This is different from theme, which I defined as the organizing principle of your story.


2 responses to “Verbal Brawls in Ambiguous Ink

  1. This was a really helpful article for me and one I very much needed to read.

    I imagine almost every character’s flaws point back to the central theme in some way right?

    Keeping with the Sixth Sense, do the other characters have a hole related to this theme of no one knows thyself?

    • “I imagine almost every character’s flaws point back to the central theme in some way right?”

      I will end up arguing this is true for scripts that have lasting resonance.

      However, it is possible to tell an interesting story that people will want to see once, and not satisfy this requirement. Gravity and Nightcrawler are the first two examples I think of that are wildly entertaining… but not resonant.

      I’ll have to think on your last question. My from the hip response is that Cole’s mom and Crowe’s wife do fit this theme– excellent observation on your part.

      And thanks for the comment!

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