The Jim Morrison Challenge

Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesSegment 5

Moving from Skepticism to Conviction: (31)

To keep the segment title in a manageable length range, I did not write it in the clearest fashion possible. It should really be:

How a Protagonist’s Journey from Skepticism to Conviction Determines the Engine of Your Story. Obviously, that would be a ridiculous segment title so I went with the much less wordy (and much less clear) Moving from Skepticism to Conviction. Forgive me if you can.

The message of this segment is that what drives your story forward is the protagonist’s movement away from doubting her special ability or unique motivation to trusting that special ability or unique motivation. Such a simple idea, but how many screenplays have you read where this movement is totally lacking?

You’ll recognize a story with this deficiency by its protagonist. She will bounce off of the events in the story until very late in the script when, out of the blue, she will suddenly draw a line in the sand and extract a bunch of random strength from that line. If you’re not a fan of the clichés and vague phrasings I used to describe this kind of story, then good for you. Now you know how I [and every other reader on the planet for that matter] feel when we have to read one of these stories.

We feel this way because the protagonist never went on a journey. There wasn’t any movement in the story. There was a sequence of events in which the protagonist acted in the same way she acted when we first met her—we’ll call it Way One. After this sequence of events (32) transpires she, for no discernible reason, begins to respond to events in a new way—we’ll call it Way Two.

What readers actually want from your story is a Spectrum of Ways of responding to the events that unfold. We want to see your protagonist experimenting with her special ability or unique motivation and balancing her successes against her failures so that the sum of her experience CONVINCES her to believe in her special ability or unique motivation. All of which brings us to the point where we can build an even clearer definition of character arc than what we’ve used so far:

A character has arced only after she has progressively come to trust herself.

The most important word in that definition is progressively. Don’t forget to keep it in the forefront of your mind as you design your story. You want this to be an incremental change that is facilitated by both the successes and the failures of the events in your protagonist’s story. (33) When I talked about the plotline of a story, I asked you to imagine a sine wave with attitude. If you want to visualize what I am talking about with a character’s arc, I’ll give you this:

gisstemp_2008_graph_lrg (34)

You can see how this graph depicts a character with wins and losses, who [over the sum of her experience] moves through a net positive change that leaves her at greater story altitude. [I italicize everything that represents a topic we’ve covered up until now so that you can realize… a picture really is worth a thousand words.] (35)

At the basecamp position of your story, your character has no trust in her special ability or unique motivation. [By the way, it is getting a bit tiresome writing out special ability or unique motivation all the time. I’ve played around with the acronym possibilities and rejected everything that preserved the proper order of the words for the, much more readable and even definitionally suggestive ordering of: SUMA. So, from now on, whenever I write the new word SUMA, I will be meaning: special ability or unique motivation.] She even regards the possibility that she might possess a SUMA with extreme doubt.

Because I want to paint an ontological picture even more than I want to paint an empirical one, I will now take an incidental moment to wonder why we humans need our protagonists to present to our audience in this way.

My answer is that there is another belief all humans have which augments their belief about their innate specialness under special circumstances. In fictional terms, I stated this ontological belief earlier as:

Extraordinary events force ordinary people to be extraordinary.

The colloquial wisdom hiding in this bumpersticker of truth is something like ‘that which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’, or: Given the right circumstances, “I” will rise to the occasion. (36) Each of us (37) believes this about ourselves, and you won’t convince us otherwise. However, in concert with this belief, we also hold the following belief just as stridently:

Life is what happens to other people.

We know if extraordinary events coagulated around us, we would rise to the occasion and be extraordinary ourselves. However, we also know that extraordinary events only coagulate around someone else. I think of it in blunt force mathematical terms to make it very obvious. Would you (38) be willing to take the Jim Morrison Challenge: (39) Of the eight billion lives on this planet, do you believe yours would be worth making into a movie?

As a maker of art, your part of the contract between you and your audience requires you to place both of these species-universal beliefs into your story. They are, for lack of a better metaphor, the points of entry that allow your story to begin to signify something in the mind of the audience. Without some acknowledgment of these principles, your story will not gain that all important foothold from which true resonance grows.

Of course [as is usual for me] I have strayed a little bit from the point of this segment. I was trying to show that what we think of as character arc is best summed up as a halting belief your protagonist develops by way of navigating the successes and failures of the events in her story. Through these she comes to see that she is capable, competent, unique, and special. In short, she is a very fit subject for a movie. Her journey has been from skepticism to conviction, from doubt to belief… in herself. This is the snakeoil we writers are selling. [We’ll save the ethical implications (they turn out to be primarily Marxian) of our salesmanship for a future discussion. For now, we are just looking for the keys to the castle, and this one we have just found, and made a big deal about, is easily the most important.] Without paying homage to this part of our contract with the audience, we will have no Audience.

The conflict in your protagonist’s beliefs about her SUMA is the most important key to your story.

Algorithm 5 (From Skepticism to Conviction)

1. Design your protagonist according to “The Spectrum of Ways”.
2. Allow the spectrum you choose to give your protagonist trust in herself.
3. Remember that your character’s movement from doubt to belief is proved through BOTH her successes and her failures.

Footnotes:

31 True this is another philosophical joke, but this one might actually be funny. Since I have staked out a very “rationalist” piece of territory in this inquiry, I doubt anyone will mind…
32 This sequence will, by the way, have gotten us within 10-15 pages of the end of the script.
33 It may seem radical to propose it, but you have to also remember to let your character fail. The only story more boring to read than the one in which the protagonist is static up until 10 pages from the end is the story where the protagonist piles up victory after victory until the final showdown in which she is also… victorious. Failure can show us your character’s true strength as clearly as success can.
34 Source is http://www.nasa.gov/images/content/616910main_gisstemp_2011_graph_lrg%5B1%5D.jpg and yes, including this graph to make this visual point does make me one of those “climate change weirdos”. My views on this [like my views on screenwriting] are full of surprising nuance, though. You might be caught off guard. I hope to one day write an essay on economics comparable in scope and [lack of] erudition to my essay on screenwriting. [And yes, of course it is true that I would have even less right to write that essay than I have to write this one. And no, that is in no way going to discourage, or all out prevent me, from writing it. I got ideas, man!]

You may thank or curse god for the internet—according to your taste in ideas.]

35 In this case, this picture is worth 8004 words. I’ll preserve that as the figure even after revising.
36 I know it’s a bit Aristotelian of me to be looking for truth in the colloquial. But I do believe that these expressions fill up with meaning because we identify with them so strongly. As an even bigger aside, the expressions that pass between cultures, I would wager, are the species essential expressions that define our beliefs about our own humanity.
37 I am compelled by rigorousness to say that I am assuming a mostly regular psychological profile when I lump us all together. These thoughts will not apply to sociopaths, etc.
38 And by you, I mean ANYONE reading the sentence.
39 My knowledge of this challenge comes from the Oliver Stone movie. He may not have actually said it. In which case, this would be The Oliver Stone Challenge.

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