Saturday, February 4, 2017

Mistakes: The Mystery of the Wizard Clip Demon

It's confession time.

When I find the time I DO write screenplays....that will probably never get made. Yes, I do write a lot of stuff that does get produced, but generally only for my documentary/corporate clients. (In fact, we just finished a hour long television special in December, but I can't talk about it or even show the trailer until the client gets their release scheduled figured out. It's looking like July if they can four-wall the theater.)

But back to the screenplays I'd love to see made. As much as I consult with filmmakers and storytellers in various genres, it's always surprising to me how I (supposedly the expert at some of this stuff) am totally blind to it.

Case in point. Here's the "comp" poster, log, and synopsis for the seventh major draft (over as many years) of a project I just sent off to The Black List for evaluation and the WGA (again) for registration.

GENRE: Historical Haunted House Drama-Comedy 
LOG LINE: The "true story" of a demonic infestation from Early American history. Refusing last rites to a dying sojourner, an Early American farmer battles a haunting and enterprising demon who destroys the family's home and farm while bargaining for their souls. 
SYNOPSIS: In 1795, Adam Livingston and his family were farmers in the Shenandoah Valley. A visiting stranger became deathly ill and begged his host to find a Catholic priest to come and administer last rites. But the Livingston's, who despised Papists, refused. As he died, the stranger cursed the Livingston homestead. Immediately after, a demonic presence came to haunt. The poltergeist, among other things, made a name for itself by cutting crescent moons out of linens, silks and leather goods  Why crescent moons? They say the demon was the moon god. And since no human would speak a demon's real name, it settled for a nickname—The Wizard Clip. Over 2-3 years the Wizard destroyed the family’s homestead. Admitting that the Haunt had religious intents, Adam begged various preachers to come and exorcise his property. But they could do nothing but run away. Then, after a couple of nightmares, he discovered that to achieve his greatest desire, he would have to embrace what he hated most.

The mistake I warn others often about, but that I've made for the first five drafts on this story was this:

I was loyal to the historical record. 

This is particularly true of life stories. Several times a year a client will come to me and with great excitement tell me the adventurous story of their aunt battling city hall, or their brother who battled the cartel in Texas. Inevitably there's a slow beginning, middle or end so that all the exposition can be crammed in. Or some event cannot be eliminated because the writer's mother-in-law would be offended.

And yet, at the same time these writer's will claim that they want their story to be embraced by main stream audiences who long of the big and regular emotional roller coaster ride of a well-structured story designed to entertain mainstream audiences.

Well folks, you can't have it both ways...usually.

In my Wizard Clip story (above) the historical record tells how Adam Livingston battled the demon tooth and nail for three years, but was unsuccessful in getting it to leave them alone. (SPOILER AHEAD) Then he has a nightmare of a man performing some kind of incantation followed by an otherworldly voice that says, "This is the man who can relieve you." Of course Adam doesn't know what that means, but starts asking around...and some neighbors...whom he had previously despised (because they were Catholics), tell him that the dream was that of a Catholic priest celebrating Mass. So, the McSherry's introduce Adam to Fr. Denis Cahill, who eventually comes (after some earlier failed attempts), celebrates the Mass in the Gathering Hall of their farm house...and the demon never comes to haunt again.

Being a Catholic, the story sounded cool to me. So that's what I wrote and stuck to for the first five drafts. (I was loyal to the historical record.) That is, for Acts 1 and 2 my protagonist/hero is Adam Livingston. And then suddenly in Act 3 I switch heroes to the priest.

DUMB! I would never tell you to do that for your story, but that's what I told myself for five years.

My mistake was made crystal clear to me in a very short review I got back from The Black List two years ago, which pointed out that I had switched protagonists in Act 3, and all the emotional collateral I had built up in Acts 1 and 2 were suddenly, and without explanation, thrown out with the bath water.

I was distressed. So, I decided to write a novel, went on a 10 day research trip to Virginia where the events occurred, and a year later I traced Dennis Cahill's life to his grave in Pittsburgh. You see, I had figured out that the story was really about the priest, BECAUSE he's the one that does the hand-to-hand combat with the demon in Act 3.

EXCEPT... the historical record and a lot of cool scenes and action are about Adam Livingston...not the priest...who still doesn't show up until Act 3.

It takes months, but finally I start to listen to my own advice....resulting in the last two drafts where Adam battles the demon in Act the excited CHEERS of my wife, Pam, when she reads it.

Ha! Ha! Well, we will see what my anonymous Black List evaluators think.

Such is my advice...(if I'd only listen to it). Write movies for the public, and not ABOUT your family or close friends...or ABOUT a pubic figure that everyone knows everything about (e.g. biopics).

It's for the restructuring reasons that such successful movies being this way:

and my favorite
(from American Hustle)

Of course,  your opening title could be:


And because movies are generally understood to be fiction...make everything up...even the opening title.

Friday, January 6, 2017


Tonight Pam, and I screened a preview of Scorsese's SILENCE with a group of friends in Ann Arbor. As usual, Scorsese presents a compelling story with a moral dilemma that few of us think about or want to think about.  SILENCE is also the kind of film I wish Christians could learn to produce—hard hitting, unflinching, explicit faith, deeply spiritual, and very difficult. No easy answers here. This is not a film about praying, getting saved, and all is happy at the end. But it is a film about praying...when God is silent...which often it seems that He is...and what real faith entails.  

No analysis, too early. But here are the links:

IMBD and Trailer

Blog post by Jesuit Consultant Fr. James Martin S.J. on SILENCE

Transcript Martin Scorsese Interview with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

YouTube Martin Scorsese Interview with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Emotional Journies

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Have you been keeping up with all the new films. I have NOT, but will try over the next few weeks.   Here are some some holiday catch-up notes that may be of interest....on three topics:

"Emotional Journeys"

Emotional Journeys
Creating an emotional roller coaster for your story is important because it is what your audience experiences every day in nearly every aspect of their lives.

Not only should a writer "write what he/she knows" but "write what his/her audiences knows."

As I continue to work on my own screenplays and help others with theirs, this important value was reinforced this morning when I came across this interesting image depicting "The Emotional Journey of Creating Anything Great. "

Then I came across the following emotional journey maps.

They all look pretty similar to this, don't they? 

They all looked very similar to slides from my on-line Storycraft Training module 5A and 5B on "The Evolution of Story Structure," where we explain how to create story with a great emotional roller coaster.

The point is, write what both YOU and YOUR AUDIENCE knows. 


In a fit of weakness I sat down with Pam and Netflix to watch ABC Family's 2011 TV Movie, 12 DATES OF CHRISTMAS. It's about, Kate (Amy Smart), a young woman on the rebound who, in a homage to Groundhog Day, relives a blind date on Christmas Eve 12 times before she learn to be less self-centered, turn her attention to the needs of others, and lands Miles (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).  The main plot is predictable, but the sub-plots are wonderfully say nothing of the elaborate and festive art and prop direction. What makes this movie worth a second and third look, however, is the sub-plotting of secondary characters, their goals and a number of props that have their own three beat motifs. Every time Kate relives her Christmas Eve date, she not only makes progress in her transformational arc (which gives us opportunity to see how the writer's developed it), but she meets new people, and encounters new obstructions...all of which have their own arcs and get resolved by the end. It's really an amazing piece of holiday writing...and a movie to be dissected and studied. Highly recommended.

PASSENGERS - Metaphors, Love, and Jennifer Lawrence

Pam and I also risked a very busy night at the local multiplex (Emagine Entertainment in Novi, MI) to see PASSENGERS. The parking lot was jammed, but the staff at Emagine had done a great job staggering show times, and staffing the ticket booths. Even though we were in a large 80% capacity theater, there were no long lines.

The critics that pan PASSENGERS are stupidity wrong. PASSENGERS is noteworthy on several points. But, first, in summary, it's the story of a spacecraft ferrying 5,200 or so humans to a new planet some 100 light years from earth. With all those people on board, it's fascinating that only 3 of those humans are awake and have speaking parts...Okay, 4 if you count Arthur (Michael Sheen) the robot bartender. For Moral Premise followers here are things to appreciate:

A. The big physical premise (a for profit company populating planets far from earth) is totally over the top, stupid, unbelievable, and preposterous...although the filmmakers make it seem all plausible and beautiful. We are drawn to the awe of the universe and this hi-tech spaceship on auto-pilot as its cargo hibernates for a couple hundred years, and the ship navigates on its own through asteroid fields and whips past stars for gravity assists.

B. BUT, as in many GREAT stories, THAT IS NOT WHAT THE MOVIE IS REALLY ABOUT. It IS about how love can grow and develop between a man and a woman in any situation. And THAT is the connection this story has with audiences.  Yes, the visual digital effects are stunning, the art direction and sets really amazing.  (The list of digital artists is almost longer than the movie...I challenge anyone to count them as they go by in the credits.) But PASSENGERS is a love story that suggests we are all passengers, on a sometimes lonely journey where we have a choice to make the best of our life, regardless of the odds we're handed.

C. What kept me deeply intrigued, however, was the rich metaphors about love between a man and a woman. The kernel of the idea seemed to come from the Garden of Eden and Adam longing for a mate. Eve comes along and together the two encounter great tragedies but manage to create a life together...and alone.

D. And then there is Jennifer Lawrence. She makes any film worth going to. One of the few real actresses today.

But so see it for the metaphors and to understand a bit more about what love is really all about.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016



TOM HANKS - Captain Miller
TOM SIZEMORE - Sergeant Horvath
EDWARD BURNS - Pvt. Reiben
BARRY PEPPER - Pvt. Jackson
ADAM GOLDBERG - Pvt. Mellish
VIN DIESEL - Pvt. Caparzo
JEREMY DAVIES - Corporal Upham
MATT DAMON - Pvt. Ryan

Heroes have arcs. They change. But they don't change like protagonists.

In a brief post on Nov 5, 2016, with the assistance of Christopher Vogler, I explain the difference between a Hero and a Protagonist. I promised to write a bit more about that topic by examining SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (SPR) and Capt. James Miller's (TOM HANKS) arc. In SPR Miller is the hero not the protagonist.

To most viewers it will not appear that Capt. Miller changes. If we compare Miller to a common protagonist, I would agree that he does not change...much.

From the Hero and  Protagonist post here's the relevant comparison.
A. The protagonist will start off with an obvious weakness or vice that (in a redemptive story) for example, will arc toward the polar opposite strength or virtue.  
B. By comparison, a hero, at the story's beginning, will almost epitomize a strength or virtue, but have a subtle flaw, which, in the course of the story will arc in the same direction, not the polar opposite. That is, the hero will find a way to increase his strength and deepen his virtue. 
In both cases (the protagonist and the hero) the Moment of Grace (the story's mid-point scene) will clearly fulcrum around the hero's motivational challenge. We might normally ask (for SPR's story question): "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan?" But the question at SPR's Moment of Grace is refined: "Will Captain Miller successfully rescue Pvt. Ryan for the right reason?"

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason, is sometimes the story question in tales about heroes. One of the best known stories that deals with this theme is T.S. Elliot's play, "Murder in the Cathedral" that portrays the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.  It's fairly clear form the beginning that Becket is going to be murdered. The question remains, however, if he will seek it for the glory of martyrdom (a sin), or allow himself to be killed for what is morally right.

Captain Miller, while not seeking martyrdom, believes from the beginning that the mission (to save Pvt. Ryan's life) is NOT worth the lives of the 8 men he takes with him. And yet, Miller is a good soldier, although he has already lost over 90 men under his command in the 3 days since they landed on Omaha, Beach.

We get an opportunity to understand Capt. Miller's attitude early in Act 2 (at 41 minutes). As the men are walking through the countryside, they gripe -- indirectly -- about the orders they've been given. They discuss the senseless purpose of their mission—"for the sake of a mother." Griping is what solider's do. But Miller is a Captain for a reason. He says, "Reiben, pay attention. This is the way to gripe! Continue, Jackson." At which Pvt. Jackson (BARRY PEPPER), the sniper in the group, gripes (about their mission) in a very high-minded, hopeful way.
JACKSON: What I mean, sir, if you put me and this rifle within one mile of Adolf Hitler with a clear line of sight, sir... Pack your bags, fellas. War's over.
Then we get to the heart of what Miller is thinking. Notice the subtext. The dialogue is not on the nose. It's good script writing, and for reasons like this example, Robert Rodat's screenplay was nominated for an an Oscar.
REIBEN: So, Captain, what about you?
You don't gripe at all?
MILLER: I don't gripe to you, Reiben. I'm a captain. There's a chain of command. Gripes go up, not down. You gripe to me, I gripe to my superiors and so on. I don't gripe to you or in front of you.
REIBEN: I'm sorry, sir, but, uh...Let's say you weren't a captain. What would you say then?
MILLER: Well, in that case, I'd say this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir,
worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men, especially you, Reiben, to ease her suffering.

A  moment after a few of the men sarcastically congratulate their Captain for his clever answer, there is a THUNDER CLAP, and a FLASH OF LIGHTING.  These are alerts to the audience to pay attention...for what Miller has just described sarcastically, will indeed be the case of his mindset at the end. It is a foreshadowing of Miller's arc.

Before we're half through, another of his men's lives is taken. And why he is killed is important, for it underscores the moral premise of the story. For not taking the mission seriously and disobeying orders,  Pvt. Caparzo (VIN DIESEL) opens himself to sniper fire. For a moment he ignores their mission and does something he deemed more noble — ironically trying to save the life of a village family's daughter. Caparzo believes saving this young girl's life is more important than saving Pvt. Ryan's life. And for that mistake Caparzo is picked off by a sniper and dies.

NOTE the experience here that Miller and his men learn from: Children of parents are important. The mother and father had asked for the soldiers to take their daughter to the better protected village up the road. This is exactly the same thing they've been asked to do by General Marshal, for Pvt. Ryan. They don't see this immediately, but it adds to the subtle evidence of the argument for the audience. If you're willing to die for a young girl, why not a brave soldier?

There are other moments about such relationships. One instance is Miller's discussion with Captain Hamill (TED DANSON) who also has a brother in the war and understands the importance of Miller's mission. Hamill tries to encourage Miller of the mission's importance. But Miller is silent, unconvinced.

At 1:05 into the  film we come to Captain Miller's MOMENT OF GRACE. You're going to see how he changes, not by changing his value system, but by reinforcing his willingness to follow orders. As a leader of men in a war, Miller has done a suburb job up to this point, but his mind is about to be changed...and he will become more deeply committed to saving Pvt. Ryan as will the rest of his men.

The Moment of Grace scene occurs moments after Miller talks with Hamill and Pvt. Caparzo is killed. The men are holed up for the night in an abandoned church. Some men sleep, Jackson copies a blood stained letter that Caparzo had written to his parents. (Note by this action how Jackson shows that he understands the important relationship between son and parents.)  Before he died, Caparzo asked Jackson to copy the letter on clean paper, because Caparzo's blood is on the original...which would be a great shock to Caparzo's mother.

In the Moment of Grace scene, the dialogue and visuals, although they seems to bounce off the walls, are really about ONE THING...the relationship of the men to their parents...and how much the parents care for their children, and how much the children (these men) care for their parents, and how Miller has to embrace that reality of Natural Law. ALSO NOTE: Don't miss the analogy of Capt. Miller as the "parent" for the men in his squad.

I've edited a transcription from "Springfield! Springfield! (movie script website) for this MOG scene. I will interrupt it from time-to-time with comments to point out how the events and dialogue in the scene change Miller's attitude about the mission.  I have also broken up scene into sub-scenes, which I will denote with hyphen separators. (I've left nothing out.)  Each section represents a propositional statement (or premise statement in the argument) that Capt. Miller needs to believe in his heart what he sarcastically intoned to his men minutes earlier in their discussion about griping.  Remember, he said:
MILLER: ...this is an excellent mission, sir, with an extremely valuable objective, sir, worthy of my best efforts, sir. Moreover...l feel heartfelt sorrow for the mother of Private James Ryan and will lay down my life and the lives of my men...
Of course, this is exactly what Miller comes to believe in this scene, which the DVD labels "CHOICES."

Scene Begins

Miller's hands shakes uncontrollably.
HORVATH: What's with your hand?
MILLER: l don't know. It started when they brought us down for embarkation. It comes and goes. 
Although Miller TELLS us that his hand was shaking at embarkation (and we do see a moment of it after he's landed on the beach), we SEE it in the close up of the shot that begins this scene. Spielberg and Rodat SHOW us that there is something inside Miller that is unsure of their mission. At no time does Miller say, "I'm nervous and unsure about the invasion but also Saving Pvt. Ryan."
HORVATH: You may have to get yourself a new job. This one doesn't seem to agree with you any more.
The "job" here refers both to Miller's occupation as a soldier, and their current mission. NOTE the subtext.

(Miller chuckles) 
HORVATH:What? (beat) What? 
MILLER: Nothing. What was the name of that kid at Anzio? He was always walking around on his hands, and singing that song about the man on the flying trapeze? 
HORVATH: Yeah, Vecchio. 
MILLER: He was a goofy kid. Remember he used to pee 'V' on everybody's jacket, for Vecchio.
HORVATH: For victory. 
MILLER: Vecchio. He was so short. Wasn't he a midget? How did he become a Ranger? 
HORVATH: Got shot in the foot once. 
MILLER: He could walk faster on his hands. He could run faster on his hands than... (trails off.) (Beat) Vecchio. (Beat) Caparzo.
Miller reflects.

We, with Miller, reflect too...about how similar Vecchio is to Caparzo. They are both Rangers. Miller as a "parent" is grieving the memory of both. Both got shot. Both find a place in Miller's heart...something he is not supposed to allow to happen. He is not suppose to "care" for his men, even someone as crazy as Vecchio. (Remember this: Miller does not respect Vecchio; he can't understand how Vecchio became a Ranger.) That Miller does care for his a mom cares for her children causes a problem for him. How can he lead his children to their death if he cares for them? (As we'll see in a moment, these jocular comments about Vecchio are poignant. Don't cast them aside as filler. Nothing in a good movie is filler. )

We're beginning to see some conflict in Miller over this dilemma. So, what does Miller do? He rehearses what he's been taught by his superiors. He vocalizes the paradox that he is struggling with. He can't shake it off. 

MILLER (cont): You see, end up killing one of your men, you tell yourself it happened so you could save the lives of two or three or 10 others. Maybe a hundred others. Do you know how many men l've lost under my command? 
HORVATH: How many? 
MILLER: 94. (beat) (quiet sarcasm) But that means I've saved the lives of 10 times that many, doesn't it? Maybe even 20, right? 20 times as many? And that's how simple it is. That's how you--rationalize making the choice between the mission and the men. 
HORVATH: Except this time, this mission is a man. 
Thus we see that Miller's mission conflict with everything he's been taught about leading men...don't care for them so much. Do not worry if they are killed. Carry on. BUT RYAN must not die. Miller's mission is to bring him back alive.
MILLER: This Ryan better be worth it. He'd better go home
and cure some disease or invent a longer-lasting light bulb or something. I wouldn't trade 10 Ryans for one Vecchio or one Caparzo.
NOTE: Do you see Miller's attitude, which is now expressed not just on the nose, but on Miller's sleeve?  Miller does not believe in this mission, and he's not willing to give his life for Ryan. Miller considers crazy Vecchio (a man who should not have been a Ranger) more important and Ryan.
And his men clearly feel the same way.

(Miller's hand shakes.) 
MILLER: Look. There it goes again. 
HORVATH: Sir...are you all right? 
MILLER: Look, we're gonna move out in two hours. Why don't you get some sleep?
Interpretation: "Don't start caring for me, Horvath. It's against our constitution as soldiers."

CUT TO one of the men sleeping soundly.
PVT. REIBEN: I don't know how he does it. 
SOLIDER 1: What's that? 
PVT. REIBEN: Falls asleep like that. Look at him. He's lights-out the minute his head's down. 
SOLIDER 2: Clear conscience. 
The shot of the soldier sleeping is reminiscent of a child sleeping, safe in his bed at home. The men looking over him subliminally reminds us of parents...a mother...looking in on her child.
SOLIDER 3: What's that saying? 'If God's on our side, who's on theirs?' 
CORPORAL UPHAM: 'If God be for us, who could be against us?' 
SOLIDER 3Yeah, what did I say?
MEDIC WADE (transcribing Caparzo's letter): Well, actually, the trick to falling asleep is trying to stay awake. 
ANOTHER: How is that, Wade? 
MEDIC WADE: My mother was an intern, she worked late nights, slept through the day, so the only time we got to talk was when she'd get home. So I used to lie in my bed and try to stay awake, but it never worked 'cause the harder I tried, the faster I'd fall asleep.
More mother-child remembrances...and Miller hears all this.
PVT. REIBEN: That wouldn't have mattered in my house. My ma would've shook me awake, chatted till dawn. That woman was never too tired to talk.
ANOTHER: Probably the only time she could get a word in.
PVT. REIBEN: Funny thing is, sometimes she'd come home early, and I'd pretend to be asleep. 
ANOTHER: Who? You...your mom? 
PVT. REIBEN: (ZOOM IN) Yeah. She'd stand in the doorway
looking at me. And I'd just keep my eyes shut. I knew she just wanted to find out about my day, that she came home early... just to talk to me. (tears) And I still wouldn't move. l'd still pretend to just be asleep. I don't know why I did that.
This line by Reiben is significant to the director because we see a very slow zoom in on Reiben as he delivers it, tears come into his eyes, and the filmmakers milk the moment for every frame of emotion. It's the love of a son for a mother, and the love of the mother for a son. NOTE: Contrast this moment with the ridicule we heard earlier in the griping scene when the guys griped about getting Ryan back "for the sake of a mother." Their attitude now, in this moment of grace is pivoted 180 degrees.  Will Miller also shift? Will the hero change?

(silence - contemplation) 
MILLER: We only got a couple hours. Go to sleep.
This line is instructive for two reasons: (a) it reminds us that Miller is paying attention, and (b) he's uncomfortable with the topic and wants it to end.

But the filmmakers are not done. Miller is not yet convinced. So, we pile on more evidence for the argument that Miller needs to be willing to risk his life for Ryan, and truly believe the mission is important.
CORPORAL UPHAM: Captain? Sir? 
MILLER: Corporal?  How you doin' there? You all right?
CORPORAL UPHAM: Yeah, I think this is all good for me, sir. 
MILLER: Really? How is that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (quiet reflection): 'War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man.' 
MILLER: Yeah, well, I guess that's Emerson's way of finding the bright side. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: You know Emerson, sir? 
MILLER: I know some. 
CORPORAL UPHAM: So where are you from, Captain? What'd you do before the war? 
MILLER:  What's the pool up to? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: (taken back) You know, I think it's around 300, sir. 
MILLER: Well, when it gets up to 500, I'll give you the answers and we'll split the money. How about that? 
CORPORAL UPHAM: : Well, sir, I feel it's my duty under your command to suggest we wait until it gets to a thousand, sir.
MILLER: What if we don't live that long? 
MILLER: 500 would be good, yeah. 
MILLER: Yeah. Get some sleep, Corporal.
Those are the last spoken lines in the scene. But it continues for another 40 seconds as Miller walks off by himself and thinks, we suppose about Emerson's lines. Miller has to decide:
  • If war will educate his sensitivities.
  • If he can exercise his will, and not just those of his commanders.
  • If he has the physical disposition to do what is right for the right reasons.
  • If when critical decisions have to be made swiftly in close combat, he will measure up to his ideal of a man.
The camera zooms in and the swift light of explosions that bring sudden death illuminate his profile.

During the rest of the film, we see example of example of how Miller and his men come to see their mission with renewed dedication. There is no more griping, and many of them men give their lives willingly for the cause.

In the end, Miller willingly gives up his life to protect Ryan, acting out the sarcastic description early in Act 2.. As he lays dying on the bridge approach Miller tells Ryan: "Earn this! Earn this!" 

At the end of the movie,  an elderly Pvt. James Ryan comes to the graveyard at Omaha Beach to pay his respects to Captain Miller. He finds Miller's marker, and with tears in his eyes, the humble man, who probably didn't cure a disease or invent a longer lasting light bulb, delivers this soliloquy to Miller's grave:
OLDER RYAN: My family is with me today. They wanted to come with me. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure how I'd feel coming back here. Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And I've tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I've earned what all of you have done for me.
Ryan's elderly wife, joined by their children, come up behind him, and tenderly grasps his shoulder. She sees he's been crying.
RYAN'S WIFE: James? 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I've led a good life. 
OLDER RYAN: Tell me I'm a good man. 
RYAN'S WIFE: You are.
NOTE: That although Pvt. Ryan (MATT DAMON) and his elder self Older James Ryan (HARRISON YOUNG) take up very little screen time, Ryan's life also has an arc...a hero's arc. At the bridge PVT. RYAN refuses to go with Miller and leave his platoon who guard the bridge. When the Germans show up and Miller is shot, Ryan experiences his Moment of Grace. Before he dies, Miller pleas with Ryan: Earn this. Earn this.

And evidently Ryan has earned it. Indeed it seems clear that Ryan has, everyday of his life, relived that Moment of Gerace on the bridge, and rededicated his life to strengthen the virtues for which Miller died. 

Therefore, the moral premise for SAVING PRIVATE RYAN seems to be:

Griping about one's mission in life, leads to questionable manhood and purpose; but
Devotion to one's mission in life, leads a man to a good and purposeful life.

Please know that your comments are welcome. 

You'll find a great deal of good instruction and come closer to mastering your storytelling skills by making use of my on-line Storycraft Training. Housed at Vimeo's VOD site, it can be accessed from  Your rental or purchase of the training helps to fund my continued research and writing of essays like this. 

May your writing continue to Vanquish Fear, and Bestow Hope.

Stan Williams

This picture has nothing to do with this post, but I have admired this man all my adult life. It was fabulous to meet him and help introduce him at a film conference in Los Angeles a few years back. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Beats - Turning Points - Stages - Pinch Points

One of my on-going challenges as a story consultant has been to clarify terminology and minimize the equivocation in terms. (Thus the recent post Protagonist vs. Hero with assistance from Chris Volger). Clarifying terms was a motivation behind writing the The Moral Premise regarding what others were calling various things like "the Controlling Idea," "Theme," "Premise," and so on.

The Story Diamond was not original with me, but I saw the opportunity of layering other story  concepts onto it and thus demonstrating how the wide variety of terms used in our niche industry, are really all about the same thing.

So, this post is another attempt at that...with hopefully some nomenclature consistency. It was prompted by the last several posts by Michael Hauge over at Michael has made the turn from calling every sequence and turning point a "beat" to differentiating between the different kind of beats as "turning points" and story "stages".  This solves an on going problem. I would tell my clients that some beats are "moments" (a single scene) and others are "sequences" (numerous scenes.) Yet the connotation of "beats" still sounds  instantaneous...which is confusing since half of the beats are not moments at all.

So, taking this hint from Michael, I offer up the following and the Story Diamond has been updated to reflect this subtle shift in labeling conventions.

Recall that our goal is to create an emotional roller coaster effect for our reader/audience. That end goal demands a regular (up and down) progress of scene sequences and turning points (or beats) or pattern over which we can apply our story elements and plot.

Additions and Revisions

1. Around the perimeter (in red) I've added a version of the Staging convention that Hauge uses, with the addition of dividing up Stage 3 and 4 into 3A, 3B and 4A, 4B. (I don't like this particularly because it is not cogent with the previous convention of Act 2A (Stage 3) and Act 2B (Stage 4). But if you don't mix systems, you'll be okay.

2. Then it occurred to me that the Inciting Incident and the Final Incident were very much like Pinch Points A and B (which were originally at the mid points of Act 2A and Act 2B. None of these points were "turning points" but rather places where the antagonist (or antagonistic force) raises its head to prod the protagonist (or hero) forward. "Turning Points" were moments where the Protagonist or Hero make decisions that takes the story in a new direction. This interconnectedness between the Protagonist and "new direction" reinforces the story dictum that the Protagonist is in charge of the story, and not the Antagonist. The protagonist changes the antagonist prods. So, I am now labeling the Inciting Incident "Pinch Point A" and the Final Incident "Pinch Point D" which leaves the former Pinch Points A and B to be relabeled C and D.


Then if we refer to the Climax of Act 3 a turning point (which is clearly is in redemptive stories where the protagonist makes his/her biggest change) we then have a wonderfully symmetrical story system.  There are 4 Turning Points, and 4 Pinch Points, and they alternate, helping to create the roller coaster effect we're after.

Plus, the Sages alternate with the Points, for a deeper symmetry and a satisfying roller coaster ride.
  1. (Prologue)
  2. Stage 1
  3. Pinch Point A (Inciting Incident)
  4. Stage 2
  5. Turning Point 1 (Act 1 Climax)
  6. Stage 3A
  7. Pinch Pint B
  8. Stage 3B
  9. Turning Point 2 (MOG)
  10. Stage 4A
  11. Pinch Point C
  12. Stage 4B
  13. Turning Point 3 (Act 2 Climax)
  14. Stage 5
  15. Pinch Point D (Final Incident)
  16. Stage 6
  17. Turning Point 4 (Act 2 Climax)
  18. Denouement
A full explanation of the Story Diamond is presented in my On-Line Storycraft Training series.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hero vs. Protagonist

Thanks to Christopher Vogler for his contributions to this post.

What's the difference between a hero and protagonist; or for that matter the anti-hero, villain, antagonist, main character or POV character?  Like many concepts it's easy to lapse into equivocation because of the varied way these terms are used.

While I have no serious issue with using "hero" and "protagonist" interchangeably, it can make sense to use them differently. Below are a few suggestions for all these terms.

An underlying assumption (and a big one) is that the audience has a working moral compass and knows what behaviors are to be rooted for or deplored. This may not work in a morally ambiguous universe, but for general audiences that comprise a cross section of society, a movie's popularity will correlate to natural law, which is a fair basis for moral certainty.

MAIN (POV) CHARACTER... the character with the most screen time. This may or may not be the hero, anti-hero, one of two kinds of protagonists, anti-hero, antagonist, or villain. It is almost always the Point of View (POV) character, or the perspective of the storyteller.

HERO... is the character that
  • nearly epitomizes the virtues or strengths of the moral premise, but still 
  • is subtly flawed
  • will change (arc), but subtly and always in the same direction. The hero's values will not change direction or polarity, but at the Moment of Grace will get stronger & deeper. 
  • actively pursues a physical and visible goal that audience can root for.
  • will be a good guy with desirable traits.
Example: Captain Miller in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. See detailed post at link.

ANTI-HERO... is that character that:
  • epitomizes the vices or weaknesses of the moral premise, and thus 
  • is significantly flawed.
  • will change (arc), but subtly and always in the same direction. That is, the hero's values will not change direction or polarity, but at the Moment of Grace will get stronger & deeper
  • actively pursues a physical and visible goal that audience can root for.
  • will be a good guy with undesirable traits
Example: Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER

VILLAIN... is that character that:

  • epitomizes the vices or weaknesses of the moral premise, and thus
  • is significantly flawed
  • will change (arc), but subtly and always more dark. 
  • actively attempts to prevent the hero or protagonist from reaching the goal.
  • will always be the bad guy.
Example: Hans Gruber in DIE HARD

PROTAGONIST (Redemptive)... is that character that:

  • at first, embraces vices or weaknesses of the moral premise, and is therefore,
  • clearly flawed, but
  • will change (arc) clearly toward the virtue or strengths of the moral premise.
  • actively pursues a physical and visible goal that audience roots for.
  • is usually a good guy in the end.
Example: Bob Parr in THE INCREDIBLES

PROTAGONIST (Tragic)... is that character that:

  • at first, embraces vices or weaknesses of the moral premise, and is therefore 
  • clearly flawed, but
  • will change (arc) clearly toward darker vices or greater weaknesses of the moral premise.
  • actively pursues a physical and visible goal that audience roots against
  • is usually a bad guy in the end. 
Examples: Charles Foster Kane in CITIZEN KANE, and
Tony Soprano in THE SOPRANOS

Test Question: Do tragic protagonists always sit at table with a wine glass half-full, chin down, eyes up, and glare off screen camera right...."as if the answer to their dilemma were over there" (CV).

ANTAGONIST... is that character that:

  • embraces either vices/weaknesses or (not both) virtues/strengths of the moral premise, and is therefore 
  • clearly flawed, or clearly virtuous,
  • may or may not (arc) clearly toward the opposing value, but if arc occurs will be cogent with the moral premise
  • actively opposes the physical and visible goal of the hero, anti-hero, or protagonist becoming the catalyst for change (arc) in the hero, anti-hero or protagonist.   
  • may be the good guy or the bad guy
Example: The Angels in "Touched By An Angel"