Editor Roundtable: About Time

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The editors travel back to fundamentals this week as we analyze one of Kim’s favorites, About Time, to learn all about the an internal global genre. This 2013 British romantic fantasy was written and directed by Richard Curtis.

 

The Story

Genre: Worldview-Maturation

  • Beginning Hook – At 21 years old, Tim’s father tells him the big family secret: that the men in their family can travel in time. Tim decides to use his newfound gift to help him get a girlfriend. He meets Mary and, entirely organically, they his it off and she gives him her number. But when Tim uses time travel to save his roommate from a botched opening night of his big play, he changes his own timeline and no longer has her number, because now they have never met! Rather than abandoning his good deed for his roommate, Tim looks for another way to re-meet Mary.
  • Middle Build – After a bit of orchestration, Tim and Mary fall in love, marry, and have their first daughter, Posy. But when Tim tries to use time travel to fix his sister’s derailed lifestyle, he returns to find his daughter is now a son. He returns to Posy’s birth and learns from his father that to travel back before his children’s birth risks losing them, and instead must let his sister reap her own consequences.
  • Ending Payoff – When Mary tells Tim she wants to have another child, Tim must face his hardest choice of all: having another baby means he won’t be able to go back to see his father ever again, who has recently passed away from cancer. Tim visits him one last time to say goodbye, and then embraces a life without time travel, instead choosing to recognize each moment as the precious gift it is the first time around.

The Principle

Kim – When I first watched this movie years ago, I was looking for comp titles for my own novel and came across it on Amazon. The movie cover was this cute couple, Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams, all dressed up and laughing together. It was written and directed by Richard Curtis, the same guy who made Love, Actually. Perfect!

So I rented it and watched it with my sister and when it was over we were both just stunned. It wasn’t at all what I thought–it was so much more and so much better.

About Time certainly has a love story in it, but it is not a Love story, not in the global sense. The values at stake, the core event, the ending payoff, conventions and obligatory scenes, all the different aspects tell a very different story–a global internal genre, specifically Worldview-Maturation. And it’s one of my favorite stories ever.

So how do they get away with this? Marketing one thing and delivering another? And how do we know this isn’t a love story? Leslie? Over to you.

LeslieRomantic comedies and courtship love stories are big crowd pleasers when they meet reader expectations, but many lack that special something that makes a story stick with the reader. They don’t change the way people see themselves and the world—which is fine if that is the writer’s goal. Typically gl0bal internal genre stories have smaller audiences, even when they are critically acclaimed. If you want to write a story that endures and has a great chance of being commercially successful, a global internal genre paired with a courtship love story is a great option.

One way to write a global internal genre story that is also a commercial success is to sell readers what they want and give them what they need. That’s not a bait and switch scenario, where you promise one thing and deliver something else entirely. The aim is to deliver on the promise of the love story by meeting the conventions and obligatory scenes in innovative ways, but also deliver a robust internal genre that leaves the reader with more than they anticipated.

Another example that we’ve discussed here on the podcast is Gladiator, which could be easily misidentified as an action story, but from our analysis, we saw a clear Status-Admiration story with Society-Political secondary genre.

What About Time Isn’t – Global Courtship Love Story

Although About Time meets the conventions and obligatory scenes for a love story, Tim and Mary reach commitment at about the midpoint (when he proposes and Mary accepts). Richard Curtis could have extended the love story into a marriage plot, but he didn’t: The couple experiences stressful events (e.g., Katie’s addiction and accident and Tim’s father’s illness), but it doesn’t threaten their commitment.

Important Point: Just because the story meets the conventions and obligatory scenes for a genre, doesn’t mean it’s the global. But also keep in mind that although readers and viewers may reach a consensus about a particular story, often the global genre is in the eye of the beholder (especially when it’s an internal genre) because we bring our own frame of reference to any story we consume.

Another way to investigate the true global genre is to look at the in and the out. Steven Pressfield has a great series about these two moments in a story: the opening image and the closing image. You can substitute mood, voice, monologue, or … for image in a written story. Pressfield explains, “Even if you haven’t seen a frame of the movie except these Ins and Outs, you get a pretty good sense of what the story is about—and how the hero (Shane, Ripley, Will) has changed from the beginning of the tale to the end.”

Here’s the in for About Time:

After Tim offers honest but loving assessments of his family members, he says this about their life together:

All in all, it was a pretty good childhood. Full of repeated rhythms and patterns. By the time I was 21, we were still having tea on the beach every single day. Skimming stones and eating sandwiches, summer and winter, no matter what the weather. And every Friday evening, a film, no matter what the weather.

Here’s the out:

The truth is, I now don’t travel back at all. Not even for the day. I just try to live every day as if I’ve deliberately come back to this one day to enjoy it as if it was the full final day of my extraordinary, ordinary life.

We’re all travelling through time together every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.

Tim’s first assessment is about positive and negative aspects. His second assessment is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary—in other words, the life value shift represented by the in and the out is one of a maturing perspective.

Note about reality genre for About Time: This story falls just barely in the realm of fantasy, which shows how this is a continuum, rather than a black-and-white choice. In this story, the fantasy element is more of a device, whereas in a story like Game of Thrones, it’s more fundamental to the story’s core. It would be hard to tell About Time without the time travel element, but another plot device could conceivably stand in its place.

Kim – What it is – Worldview-Maturation

Cause & Effect Statement

When a sympathetic protagonist (Tim who is kind and awkward), with naive black-and-white views of the world (has limited experience in life and love) and mistakenly conceived goals (thinks he can use time travel to fix everything), experiences a loss or trial (Katie’s accident, Dad’s death, new baby that no longer allows him to travel back) that shows them the world is multi-layered and imperfect (we can’t fix things, but we can still love), they embrace better-suited goals and actions (no longer needs to travel back to be fully present in each moment).

Life Values

  • BH: Naivete to Acknowledged Naivete – begins with limited experience in and love then learns about his time travel ability. Tries to use it to get a girlfriend but it backfires.
  • MB: Naivete to Naivete Masked as Sophistication to Cognitive Dissonance – uses time travel to successfully navigated his relationship with Mary and solve all kinds of mishaps (best man at his wedding for one), then believes he can fix Katie’s situation by taking her back to the NYE party when she first met her crappy boyfriend, but then realizes traveling back before his daughter Posy is born is too big a risk. So instead he is forced to do nothing and just accept Katie’s events as they happen.
  • EP: Cognitive Dissonance to Sophistication -Tim learns about his father’s illness as the motivator for him going back in time and retiring early, so he could spend more time with his family. He passes away but Tim is still able to return to their moments together, until their third baby is born. Tim must accept the loss and continue to live. He comes to surpass his father’s secret to happiness (living each day twice) by not needing to travel back anymore. Instead he just lives each day as if he already had traveled back the second time to be fully present and appreciate it.

Subplots as vehicles to global internal change

BH

  • Lesson 1: Charlotte – Tim’s first attempts to use time travel to get a girlfriend when his sister’s friend Charlotte comes to stay over the summer. Despite his attempts, he learns that, “All the time travel in the world can’t make someone love you.”
  • Lesson 2: Harry vs Mary – After Tim meets Mary, he helps Harry fix his botched play only to realize he now doesn’t have Mary’s number, because now he went to the play instead of the restaurant with his friend Jay. Tim must face more limitations of his gift–even if he can go back in time, he still can’t be in two places at once.

MB

  • Lesson 3: Charlotte vs Mary – After Tim reconnects with Mary and all is well, he runs into Charlotte one night while out with his friend. This time, Charlotte takes an interest in him and invites him out to dinner and back to her place. Tim walks her back but instead of going inside, says goodnight and rushes home to where Mary is sleeping and proposes. Even with the chance to do anything and undo it, Tim makes the right choice.
  • Lesson 4: Katie vs Posy – When Tim is determined to help Katie fix her life by returning to the NYE party where she met her crappy boyfriend, he returns to discover his daughter is now a son, and traveling back in time before a child’s birth risks losing them. He returns to Posy’s birth and Katie is forced to reap the consequences of her actions. As Mary said, “If it’s really going to be fixed, it’s something she has to do herself.”

EP

  • Lesson 5: Tim’s father vs new baby – Tim’s father passes away from cancer but Tim is still able to travel back to one of their special chats or rounds of ping pong, until Mary tells him she wants to have another child. This will mean Tim will no longer be able to travel back to see his dad. “Embracing the future means letting go of my dad.”
  • Lesson 6: Tim’s own revelation – Tim’s father told him his formula for happiness. Step 1: live each day like normal life. Step 2: live each day again, almost exactly the same, only this time noticing all the joy and splendor you missed the first time around. In the end, Tim takes it a step further and doesn’t travel back at all, instead choosing to live as though he had traveled back that second time, with the intention of soaking up every second.

Time as a device for Worldview stories

Education – Groundhog Day

Disillusionment – Our Town (working theory)

Maturation – About Time

Revelation – Arrival

Testing the Proposition

Anne – I am 100% in agreement with you, Kim, that this movie was marketed as a love story, either cynically by the studio because it would sell better, or out of genuine ignorance for what kind of story this really is, which is an internal genre. Or maybe just because that’s what Richard Curtis is known for, so that’s what they went with.

I am SO SORRY to be the person in the room who disliked a movie that is such a favorite with one of my friends. Sorry, Kim!

I need to give a couple of disclaimers here. First, I’m not the target audience for romantic comedies in general, and my main interest in this movie was the time travel aspect. And second, though I can appreciate time travel as a light, fantasy element, I couldn’t get past the way the story played fast and loose with its own internal laws.

For instance, you can’t go back to a time before the conception of your child, because that child is the product of a specific sperm and a specific egg, and any little change could make the child could come out a son instead of a daughter, which we see happen.

But there’s no mention of all the other problems the time traveler could cause, and if conception is the only thing that can be interfered with, why does Tim hesitate to travel back to see his father one last time when the baby is due at any moment?

What’s more, why introduce a father-to-son transmitted superpower, then simply ignore the implications of Tim accidentally changing his daughter Posy into a son? He lets his own sister go through with her drunk driving accident out of love for his little girl, but the story never once addresses the obvious moral implications of passing this dubious superpower on to a son, not even when Tim and Mary finally have one.

So I’m definitely coming from a position of “Not a fan,” though I wanted to be. Kim and Leslie, you make an excellent, studied case for it being a Worldview maturation plot and a large part of me wants to say, “Yeah, okay, sure. Maturation.”

BUT IS IT? I  experienced it as a muddled Morality story because in the end, the protagonist sacrifices something important for the sake of his family.

Yes, the young hero, like the young hero in just about every story with a young hero, undergoes some maturation, but he completely fails to address the real moral issues inherent in the very premise of the story.

As soon as it was clear that Tim and Mary were going to be together for good, Tim’s time-traveling superpower becomes a secret between them, and we begin to realize that it must have equally been a secret that Tim’s father kept from his mother throughout the many years of THEIR marriage. It unfolds that the father has been living every single day twice, once to suffer life’s little annoyances, and the second time to enjoy the good things. In effect, he’s lived twice as long as everyone around him and has become wise and lovable, adored by all, as a result–in short, everyone thinks he’s awesome and nobody knows that he has sort of cheated to become that way.

Tim’s wife doesn’t know it about Tim, either. No clue that on their first date he’s had three chances to improve sex with her–she only knows about one of them.

The movie never addresses this problem, which is one of trust and, it seems to me, morality. This secret-keeping should have made the courtship love story into a marriage story involving secrets and lies between the spouses. Instead, the love story simply ends at the midpoint. Jarie’s going to say a bit more about this in a sec.

I realize that a morality genre story is about more than an ethical decision for the protagonist. It’s about selfishness and altruism. I just think the movie would have been better–and still could have been funny and charming–if it had explored what happens when Tim keeps a secret from his wife for YEARS, and then in the end effectively sacrifices his superpower for her and their children.

As I experienced it, the Maturation story was damaged by the presence of this unaddressed moral problem. This is a long-winded way of saying that I had that “incomplete genre” feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction at the end, ESPECIALLY since I really wanted to enjoy it based on its charming premise.

ADDENDUM, not in the podcast: I realized later that this story suffers from a failure on the writer’s part to understand his Reality Genre, or the marketing category of time-travel fantasy. As a realistic love story specialist, Richard Curtis seems to have said “Hey! Let’s use time travel!” but then, because time travel is “just a fantasy,” he seems to have believed he could make to whatever he felt like. He’d have done much better treat the story type, and its audience, more respectfully by actually studying the tropes, conventions, and internal logic of other, better time-travel stories, before writing his own.

Jarie – So I enjoyed this movie since I’m a sucker for english accents and dopey, awkward “leading men” who somehow just can’t get or keep their shit together. Tim’s the perfect one of those.

As Anne and Leslie mentioned, the love story courtship arc ends midway through the movie. It literally just abruptly ends when Tim proposes to Mary. This happens after he sees Charlotte and goes back several times. Everytime, he decides to avoid her and then in the end, she runs into him and you find yourself scratching your head a bit when he then proposes to Mary. Usually, a Love > Marriage story has a deeper arc that takes you through to intimacy. The Marriage story concerns a committed relationship that certainly had early stages of passion and is now at a crossroads. This story takes love into realistic realms and may have a negative inciting incident such as betrayal. There is an ironic win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending. The Marriage Love Story may be either prescriptive or cautionary. You don’t see this in Tim and Mary’s Marriage Love Story since he is keeping a big secret from her and the challenges they face are not the main issues in the story.

The stopping of courtship and then the picking up of marriage makes the plots feel incomplete and bolted together. It would have been a lot better to stick with one.

For me, this movie feels like a lot of different stories that start but never end or maybe they end in an alternative universe.

Rebuttal

Kim  – As much as it breaks my heart that you didn’t like the movie, Anne, (what’s the opposite of a laugh track?!)

Anne – An “awww!” track. I’ll find one.

Kim – I certainly understand how breaking the established rules made it intolerable. And I can’t say those same things didn’t bother me when I first saw it (because they did, I scratched my head about them for days and probably googled to try to understand) but there was so much more in the story that stayed with me for all the right reasons. Much which related personally to my own novel, which was why I went looking and came across it in the first place.

And the mention that it felt like a muddled morality story is very interesting, and I think there is a really interesting reason behind it. When Norman Friedman wrote Forms of Plot in (1955) which was the first time someone had delineated between internal and external genres, he listed Maturation as a Plot of Character (which were his Morality plots), and he had a separate Plot of Thought called Affective that was similar, but still different enough for him to categorize it separately. He also had an additional Morality plot “Degeneration” which Anne and I used as our basis for our argument in the Manchester by the Sea episode.

Shawn takes a more streamlined approach and combines some similar genres, and he categorizes Maturation under Worldview, because it is about a character going from a naive/black and white view of the world, metabolizing some intense cognitive dissonance to ultimately embrace the paradoxical gray that is the truth.

But unlike the Education and Disillusionment subplots, in order for a Maturation story to work, the protagonist must demonstrate their newly held sophisticated worldview through action. This action is often a form of sacrifice and likely why Norman Friedman tied it to Morality.

So all that to say, the nuance between genres is a real thing and is never going away. Like everything, there is bell curves of variation. Some Maturation stories may feel totally Worldview and some may lean to Morality. This is okay. The important part is understanding the specific story you’re trying to tell and execute that as well as you can, understanding that your protagonist is going to likely change in more than one internal level. Being as intentional as possible will help your desired change come through clearly to the audience.

For About Time and Writer/Director Richard Curtis, I think it comes down to the final line, “We’re all travelling through time together every day of our lives. All we can do is do our best to relish this remarkable ride.”

Leslie – When we analyze a story like we do on the podcast, we study the mind of the writer, but we’re also studying our own minds, our reactions to the story. (Mindfulness practices help a lot.) Certain genres, characters, themes, and motifs will resonate with us because of our own life experience. When we enjoy a story, it’s harder to think critically about it (for example, it wasn’t until after I discussed the story with others that I realized I’d missed that the father didn’t have much interest in his daughter—what’s up with that?). I forgave a lot of plot holes because the artists exceeded my expectations in this case.

Story Grid tools are objective and enable us to identify whether a story works beneath our own subjective preferences. They are fantastic tools, and obviously we here are all big fans. But as writers we still need to bring our own head, heart, and gut to the process of writing and revising our stories. Use them both as a system of checks and balances.

Listener Question

Valerie – To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Kristi Garrett in the Level Up Your Craft Story Grid Summer Course.

This question seems a bit elementary, but do each of the 15 core scenes need to be actual “scenes”? For example, Brigette’s Climax “scene” was just a beat, wasn’t it? It seems like many times the crisis-climax can happen so quickly — even in a novel — that they’re not full-fledged scenes.

Do I just need to ensure that each 15 core scene elements are present in my story, even if there are some scenes are doing double duty?

Valerie – Thanks, Kristi, for the great question.

The 15 Core Scenes are those that we list on the Story Grid Foolscap; the five commandments for each of the three acts of the story. They create the story spine which has to turn on the global value.

As a general rule, the 15 Core Scenes are completely separate entities, but that’s not carved in stone. Sometimes one scene can have more than one commandment. For example, the global turning point progressive complication and the global crisis can be in the same scene; sometimes they’re just seconds apart. The crisis and climax could also be in the same scene or, as is the case with Gran Torino, the climax and the resolution of the middle build are in the same scene.

The important thing to remember is that with the 15 Core Scenes what you’re doing is creating a solid story spine. If you can do that by have more than one global commandment in a scene, have at it!

If you have a question about a global internal genre, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by going to storygrid.com/resources, clicking on Editor Roundtable Podcast, and leaving us a voice message.

Join us next time to find out whether Anne can make the case that the 2018 Marvel blockbuster Black Panther successfully disguises a Society/Political revolution story as Action-Epic. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
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What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
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Author Leslie Watts

4 Comments

Lou W. Sytsma says:

This episode left me conflicted. The consensus was the foundation of the story is based on a premise which the story violates, yet the movie was still liked because of a particular sentiment expressed. Plus some other aesthetics such as the acting etc. I don’t think its being cynical to dislike a story if the writer breaks the trust contract between them and the reader. Wonder what the overall consensus of this story would have been, if a written version was being reviewed instead of the movie…

The reactions here explain why badly written things like 50 Shades of Grey can be so popular.

As for a masterwork internal genre movie – still waiting for that Shawshank Redemption episode. ;-D The premise of that story could be – who is the primary protagonist in this story? Is it Andy? Or is it Red?

Reply
ANNE HAWLEY says:

Hi Lou. There’s a podcast called Hero’s Journey that does similar work to ours, and they did an episode on Shawshank. They debated the protagonist question, arriving at the conclusion (as I recall) that the novella’s protagonist is Red but was changed it to Andy for the movie. (It’s a worthwhile podcast, by the way.)

I wish our episode on About Time had covered the issue of camping out in someone else’s (marketing) genre without respecting it. The more I thought about the movie after recording, the more I felt that Richard Curtis had no business in the time-travel fantasy realm–that he “appropriated” it without bothering to understand it.

For a viewer like me, steeped in sci-fi and fantasy, it felt like he was saying “it’s all just fantasy–who cares whether it violates internal rules? People who love time-travel as a story type may care about these things, but those people are nuts.”

As to 50 Shades, which I’ve not read or seen, “badly written” probably refers to writing at the line level, similar to the criticism always, and rightly, leveled at Dan Brown (whose books I have read). But they’re screaming page-turners and blockbuster hits, and that means they meet and exceed the expectations of their respective audiences by providing plenty of narrative drive: mystery and suspense, mostly.

The erotic-romantic content of a story like 50 Shades is a form of suspense. The reader chose the book specifically for that content, and keeps turning the pages to get to the next erotic scene. Presumably, E.L. James escalated the stakes by having her protagonist take one more step and one more step into the daring and unfamiliar world of the particular sexual preferences of the male lead.

If it’s not your cup of tea, the suspense absolutely won’t work. If it is, you’ll forgive all kinds of faults in the prose.

Reply
Jim Starr says:

At about 33:20 on the podcast, Kim spends a very helpful 30 seconds summing up how to use this series most effectively, which is to apply the model that best helps us tell the specific story we’re trying to tell.

That process defines the breakthrough you all have helped me achieve in my own story, by providing these deep dives into the more nuanced perspective on genre that Story Grid offers. I was very much hung up on genre until you analyzed Arrival.

And now for the ask:

Having, for my own story, identified that global genre of Worldview/Revelation, I now want to find other similar examples to further that study, that is, in addition to those you’ve already pointed out (The Sixth Sense, Shutter Island, and Oedipus).

I wonder if it might help not only writers like me but also you as the creators of this podcast/blog to invite your audience to nominate other films they see as models for specific genres.

Realizing you may not want to go on doing this forever, that could both provide you with a list of films to analyze, and also help us sharpen our own skills by setting us loose on all the movies out there to identify what fits where.

Reply
ANNE HAWLEY says:

Hi Jim. Thanks for letting us know that we helped you get a breakthrough! We live for that around here.

Revelation stories are relatively rare, I think because they’re very hard for a writer to control. M. Night Shamalayan was pretty good at it for his first two or three movies, I think. One master of the genre was Rod Serling. The Twilight Zone was fueled by revelation stories.

A limitation of the revelation subgenre is that it only works twice: once as the reader goes on the initial journey, and a second time if the reader is curious enough to go back and spot the clues. In that regard, they share something with the Crime/murder mystery subgenre.

Once we had completed at least two podcast episodes per main content genre (our Season One and Season Two agenda), we moved into analyzing a single story principle rather than a whole genre per episode. We’re planning to continue this practice in Season Four, which we’ll begin recording shortly.

You’ve got me wondering whether an analysis of the principle of revelation–how do you construct it, what is it for, how does it operate–would be a great topic.

So, to address your actual ask, we’re open to suggestions and ideas about movies (or books, for that matter) in this or that genre, even though we might not do an episode on them. Here at Story Grid Headquarters, we’ve got an ongoing master list of works in all the genres and subgenres, possibly a resource for eventual publication in some form. We’re always happy to add to it.

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