Editor Roundtable: Adaptation

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This week Anne pitched Adaptation as a great example of genre mashup that works. This 2002 film starring Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep was directed by Spike Jonze from a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman, based on Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief.

 

Lots of writers struggle with settling on a single global genre, and as you probably know, here at the Story Grid we tend to argue in favor of established story form. So, what is a mashup? What are the differences between a mashup and simply including the elements of an additional genre? How do we avoid making a muddled mess? Anne prepared this genre discussion, summary, and guides us through the proposition.

The Story

Global Genre:

Charlie’s global genre, I argue, is Status Sentimental, although Jarie’s going to argue for Status Pathetic—and Kim and Valerie have an entirely different take on the genre, which they’re going to argue for in a minute.

Jarie and I agree that there’s a strong Performance element. Both types of story live in the Esteem tank of human needs, and boy does Charlie need third party validation and esteem. He starts personally low. Though his earlier screenplay is being produced, it’s not exactly blockbuster material, and he needs another job. He’s miserable and a failure in love. Though he does achieve a degree of success in the end by finishing his screenplay, it’s a very strange screenplay, and he remains a failure in love.

As to the Performance genre, yes, it’s a stretch, but if you view the whole chase in the swamp scene as the performance he’s been leading up to—that is, a successful screenplay with an exciting, McKee-worthy story—the elements are there. The strong Mentor figure is McKee, Charlie does go to him for training, he tries and fails several times

Susan’s global genre is Worldview Disillusionment, but by the time Charlie’s done writing her, there’s a strong Obsession Love story, too. She starts out hoping to find a passion she can give in to, and ends her real-life story disillusioned. But as a fictional character, her obsessive love for Laroche in the third act ends in cheap thrills, death and mayhem.

Controlling Idea

Basic for Status: Success results when a person is true to their values, whether or not it leads to social betterment.

For Adaptation: A blocked screenwriter succeeds in adapting a difficult book to a screenplay by compromising his values of artistic purity and accepting that if there’s no story he has to invent one.

Beginning Hook – When Charlie Kaufman is hired to adapt Susan Orlean’s nonfiction book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay, he must find a way to stay true to the book and his own artistic standards. But discouraged by failure in love and by a twin brother (alter ego) with a stupid blockbuster script idea, Charlie can’t find a story and can’t get the screenplay started.

Meanwhile, in the story of Susan Orlean that takes place beginning three years earlier: When she interviews John Laroche about the ghost orchid, she doesn’t take his bragging seriously and begins to fear she won’t get a story out of him. But when he describes the symbiotic life of insects and flowers to her, she begins to see the story she wants to write. She becomes fascinated by him, and decides she must see a ghost orchid herself in order to understand the kind of passion that drives him.

Middle Build – Comparing her lackluster marriage to the vitality of Laroche’s life, Susan decides to write about him as much as about the orchids. When a movie executive offers to option the published story for a movie, she returns to Florida to hunt the ghost orchid with him, but becomes disillusioned when he turns out to have feet of clay, and ends her book never having seen the ghost orchid.

Meanwhile, in the “present”, Charlie’s love life and the screenplay both fail more and more miserably as brother Donald’s love life and outrageous screenplay thrive. Under deadline pressure, Charlie caves and attends the Robert McKee seminar that has inspired Donald, and realizes that he can’t turn Susan’s book into a truthful screenplay.

The key scene is when Charlie realizes that he must invent a story or fail. With Donald’s help, he ferrets out—or imagines ferreting out—Susan’s secret love for Laroche, and finds his way into an exciting, though largely false, screenplay.

Ending Payoff – As Charlie’s screenplay unfolds before us, Susan Orlean sees but is disillusioned by the ghost orchid, but accepts Laroche’s offer to get high on a drug created from its leaves, and enters a sexual relationship with him. When they catch Charlie spying on them, Susan decides to kill him and a chase into the swamp ensues, during which every cliche from Donald’s thriller screenplay takes place. Donald dies in a car wreck, Laroche is killed by an alligator, and Charlie, a sadder but wiser man, returns to Hollywood knowing how to finish his screenplay–but still a failure in love.

The Principle

Anne: My main reason for wanting to use this movie was that I found it very hard to pin down to a specific genre, and yet I found it satisfying and entertaining. I wanted to think about why—why it’s a story that “works” when it breaks some rules.

The point is that all the genres I mentioned before are operating, in a very clearly tongue-in-cheek way as a both a nod to Robert McKee and a satire on him at the same time, and it WORKS.

Why? Because of where it falls on three of the other leaves of the Story Genre Clover. Structurally it’s miniplot, in the sense that Susan’s and Charlie’s story unfold separately and in small pieces. Stylistically, it’s both Literary with MAJOR meta credentials, and comedy. And from the Reality Leaf, it pulls heavily on absurdism. Jarie has more on this in a sec.

We’ve seen lots of movies with nonlinear timelines, but the insertion of Character-Charlie into the screenplay he’s trying to write, becoming the actual screenplay of the movie we’re watching, by a real guy named Charlie Kaufman–it’s so meta that it almost falls into its own belly-button. But it works. Not because of the exciting ending, but because after all, the real Charlie Kaufman did find a way to turn Susan Orlean’s book about orchids into a movie.

By the way, I found an interview with McKee where he discusses his own reaction to the role. He sees the McKee in the script as the antagonist and says the portrayal was accurate.

Valerie, you recently took his course What do you think? Accurate?

Valerie: I think Brian Cox nailed it. For anyone thinking of taking Robert McKee’s seminar, I highly recommend it, but dress comfortably.

Jarie: This movie is a mashup of different genres in a mini-plot style told in the absurdist style with a good healthy mix of dark comedy. What do I mean by a mashup?

A mashup is a mix of different things that make an entirely new thing. The things mixed into the mashup are well known to readers/viewers. Kinda like a recipe. Think of the Cronut, a mashup of a Croissant and a donut. If you do it right, it works. If you don’t, you get Tuna Mayo Doritos. No joke, look it up.

If you look at a mashup story that works, you get something like Hot Fuzz that we have talked about before. Mashups are not a get out of jail free card. You can’t just make up your own genre because you want to innovate something. Like the Cronut, you need to know what you’re doing.

The two parallel plots are interwoven and in some cases what happens in one, shows up in another—thus making it more absurdist than “normal” reality.

Reality: Absurdist

Style: Comedy (Dark)

Before we dive into the mashup of plots, let’s talk a little bit about the Absurdist reality leaf of our Story Grid genre clover.

Absurdism focuses on the experiences of characters in situations where they cannot find any inherent purpose in life, most often represented by ultimately meaningless actions and events that call into question the certainty of existential concepts such as truth or value. It was largely influenced by the existentialist and nihilist movements in philosophy wherein they ponder the disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world and that life has no objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value. It’s pretty bleak.

Some classic examples are Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, John Irving’s The World According to Garp, and Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano.

The common theme among all the Absurdist works is that the protagonist find themselves in situations where odd and strange things happen because of their take on the world. It’s like the worst possible thing that they can think up happens because they thought it up.

The two main plots include:

Plot #1 (Main Plot): Protagonist Charlie Kaufman is struggling to adapt the novel The Orchid Thief into a screenplay without compromising his integrity.

External Genre: Performance > Art

Internal Genre: Status > Pathetic (Anne thinks it’s Sentimental)

Plot #2 (Sub-Plot): Protagonist Susan Orlean is writing a book about John Laroche, the the orchid-stealing protagonist in her book The Orchid Thief. Secretly, Susan and John are lovers. The real reason for John’s orchid obsession reveals itself as the source of a psychedelic drug made from the elusive “ghost” orchid.

External Genre: Love > Obsessive

Internal Genre: Worldview > Disillusionment?

We normally don’t talk about the Reality or Style leaves of the genre clover, but in this case, they need to be discussed.

Mashups can go wrong quickly if you don’t have the right mix of Genres, reality, and style in place. As we have discussed before, mashups are tricky to pull off simple because the reader/viewer can get easily confused. The sin of confusion can be mitigated if the author/screenwriter choses a reality that is out of the norm since we as the reader/viewer have to suspend disbelief to accept what’s going on.

When a reader/viewer suspends disbelief , the normal rules or framework of genre conventions and obligatory scenes naturally becomes lack. This does not mean that all the “rules” can be broken but it does mean that if you get close enough, the reader/viewer will give you the benefit of the doubt.

We see this in Hot Fuzz, which we decided was a Thriller (if you squint, it’s  a Western) because it had the three genres that are in a western — crime, society, and action. It also had a buddy love story with a comedic style. It was also borderline absurd since a lot of the situations were so over the top.

Since there is not a defined mashup genre for something like Adaptation, we have to apply some logic and ranking of the conventions and obligatory scenes of the four genres were found within it. This begs the questions — which conventions and obligatory scenes are the most important? That leads us to list the OS/C for the four genres we found in Adaptation below:

Performance > Art

Obligatory Scenes:

  1. Protagonist sidesteps responsibility to perform.
  2. Forced to perform, Protagonist lashes out.
  3. Protagonist discovers and understands the Antagonist’s object of desire.
  4. Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the  Antagonist fails.
  5. Protagonist, realizing they must change their approach in order to salvage some form of honor, reaches an All Is Lost moment.
  6. The Big Event Scene, the central event of the Performance story, when the
  7. Protagonist’s gift is expressed. The Big Fight, the Play, the Recital.
  8. Protagonist is rewarded at one or more levels of satisfaction: external, interpersonal or internal.

Conventions:

  1. Strong Mentor figure
  2. Training. Protagonist must practice to gain or recover the skills necessary to perform.
  3. The explicit All is Lost Moment. Protagonist must understand that there is no getting around their imminent failure.
  4. The Mentor recovers moral compass or betrays the Protagonist to act out perceived victimhood.
  5. The power divide between Antagonist and Protagonist is wide and deep.
  6. Ironic, win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending.

Status > Pathetic

Obligatory Scenes:

  1. An Inciting opportunity or challenge.
  2. Protagonist leaves home to seek fortune.
  3. Forced to adapt to a new environment, Protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates himself or herself.
  4. The Protagonist learns what the Antagonist’s Object of Desire is and sets out to achieve it for him- or herself.
  5. Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
  6. During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their morality.
  7. The Core Event: Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that they strived to join.
  8. Protagonist saves or loses him/herself based on their action in the Core Event.

Conventions:

  1. Strong Mentor Figure (e.g., Fagan, Daddy Warbucks).
  2. Big Social Problem as subtext (Racism, Misogyny, Class)
  3. Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another).
  4. The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out.
  5. A clear Point of No Return/Truth Will Out moment, when Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be.
  6. Ironic Win-But-Lose or Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending.
  7. Protagonist has lost everything that matters to them
  8. Protagonist appears to be of low character or status while Antagonist appears to be of high character or status
  9. Protagonist denies the Call to Adventure because it goes against their values.
  10. Antagonist offers Protagonist a way to join them and is refused
  11. The quest for honor appears impossible
  12. The truth is suppressed multiple times
  13. Protagonist suffers multiple betrayals

Love > Obsessive

Obligatory Scenes:

  1. Lovers meet: Susan meets John on her trip to Florida
  2. First Kiss or Intimate Connection: After finding the ghost orchid.
  3. Confession of love:
  4. Lovers break up:
  5. Proof of love:
  6. Lovers reunite:

Conventions:

  1. Triangle: Susan is married.
  2. Helpers and Harmers
  3. Gender Divide
  4. External Need: Susan wants to feel love.
  5. Opposing Forces
  6. Secrets: The affair. Snorting ghost orchid extract.
  7. Rituals: Snorting ghost orchid extract.
  8. Moral Weight: Susan is not ready to leave her husband. She does not want anyone to know about John or the ghost orchid extract drugs.

Worldview > Disillusionment:

Obligatory Scenes:

  1. An Inciting opportunity or challenge.
  2. Protagonist denies responsibility to respond to the opportunity or challenge.
  3. Forced to respond, the Protagonist lashes out against requirement to change behavior.
  4. Protagonist learns what their external Antagonist’s Object of Desire is.
  5. Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
  6. During an All Is Lost moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their black/white view of the world to allow for life’s irony.
  7. The action moment is when the Protagonist’s gifts are expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world.
  8. The protagonist’s loss of innocence is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe.

Conventions:

  1. Strong Mentor Figure:
  2. Big Social Problem as subtext:
  3. Shapeshifters as hypocrites:
  4. A clear Point of No Return:
  5. Ironic win-but-lose, lose-but-win bittersweet ending:

These four genres have a lot of overlap in the OS/C’s. This is one of the reasons Adaptation works even though some of the OS/C’s are not present. On balance, enough are present that we can connect with and relate to the characters.

Testing the Proposition

Valerie: We agree this movie works, but we do not see a mashup here. A mashup is a mixture or fusion of disparate elements—with no single aspect outdoing another—to make a something new. Instead, with Adaptation, we see solid a Global Internal Genre of Worldview.

Now Kim and I have different insights as to which subgenre of Worldview it is, which we will discuss in a moment, but we were able to identity the conventions and obligatory scenes of a Worldview story.

Both the main storyline (Charlie’s story) and the subplot (Susan’s story) have a secondary Performance external genre and a Love Story subplot, but they’re distinct, not a mash up.

Kim: One thing we see quite often when the global genre is internal (meaning it is the driver of the story), rather than being paired with a strong external genre (like a copilot in the front passenger seat to help navigate), the global genre is in the front seat alone, with multiple genres in the backseat. The various elements (life values, conventions and obligatory scenes) of the backseat genres act as subplots that weave together to become a kind of setting or plot device for the internal change to take place.

Valerie: I think the global internal genre is Worldview>Maturation and Kim is arguing that it is Worldview>Education.

When Kim first proposed the education plot, I could see exactly what she was talking about. In fact, she had me convinced! But, when I traced the 15 core scenes for the story, and tracked the value shifts, I decided that while Adaptation is still the Worldview genre it’s really about Charlie Kaufman’s journey/growth/maturation as an artist/writer.

I’ve listed each of the 15 core scenes in the show notes, but in a nutshell, they all turn on the global value spectrum of naivete masked as sophistication, to sophistication.

Beginning Hook: naivete masked as sophistication to naivete

  • Inciting Incident: Kaufman hired to adapt The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. (His approach to the project shows naivete masked as sophistication.)
  • TPPC: Charlie asks agent to get him out of the job, but it’s career suicide
  • Crisis: Does Charlie get out of it anyway, or forge ahead?
  • Climax: Charlie decides to forge ahead.
  • Resolution: Charlie goes home defeated.

Middle Build: naivete to cognitive dissonance

  • Inciting Incident: Inspiration strikes (whittle world down to more manageable size) [also the midpoint shift]
  • TPPC: Agent suggests Charlie ask Donald for help
  • Crisis: Does Charlie ignore agent and potentially tank his career, or does he ask Donald for help?
  • Climax: Charlie goes to the Mckee seminar
  • Resolution: Scene with Robert McKee in Bar

Ending Payoff: cognitive dissonance to sophistication

  • Inciting Incident: Charlie calls Donald for help
  • TPPC: Donald finds pictures of Susan Orlean on Laroche’s porn site.
  • Crisis: When Donald passes out, what will Charlie do? Call for help and risk being found by Susan and Laroche, or stay quiet and hopefully avoid detection?
  • Climax: Charlie calls for help (and ultimately confronts Susan)
  • Resolution: Charlie finishes screenplay, confesses love to Amelia

In the Beginning Hook Global Inciting Incident scene (the luncheon with Valerie Thomas), Charlie praises Orlean’s work as “great sprawling New Yorker stuff” and has a long speech about wanting to remain true to that rather than turning it into a Hollywood thing with drug running, sex, guns or car chases. Kaufman says he doesn’t want to write about “characters learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles and succeeding in the end. The book isn’t like that and life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.” He’s naive enough to think that a story can be about flowers only. Throughout the beginning hook he criticizes Donald for studying story structure.

But, having been the plaything to Resistance (the enemy) for nearly half the film, in the turning point of the beginning hook Kaufman realizes that what he’s working with is “sprawling New Yorker shit” and there is no story for him to adapt.

In the middle build, McKee says to Kaufman, “if you write a screenplay without conflict or crisis, you’ll bore your audience to tears”. Then he says:

I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes the film. Wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws, problems but wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending. But don’t cheat. And don’t you dare bring in a Deus Ex Machina. Your characters must change. And the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.

Of course, this is exactly what Kaufman does in the ending payoff of Adaptation. Kaufman, like nature, he adapts.

Suddenly, the story has drama and conflict. He’s chosen to weave the main plot with the subplot in order to create a payoff that is surprising yet inevitable. In fact, the third act is the very story he said, in the BHGII, that he didn’t want to write.

By finally listening to McKee’s advice, Kaufman is demonstrating his sophistication as a screenwriter. He finally understands that stories reflect life, that life has conflict and that people change (adapt!), and that stories have shape. The irony to this EP is that the entire story has shape and follows story structure.

Kaufman has innovated the heck out of the genre. He’s done the thing that McKee teaches about. Usually, in the hero’s journey, the middle build is 50% of the book and belongs to the villain. Here, the villain is Resistance and it owns the beginning hook which is 50% of the film. The middle build is actually the shortest part of the story. Adaptation is roughly a 50/10/40 split.

Kim: I see this story as Global Worldview>Education, Charlie Kaufman’s struggle to find meaning in his life and work. Here are some key elements that stuck out to me that point to this a story about finding meaning and significance.

  • Charlie starts off on the set of his hit script, “Being John Malkovich” but nobody knows who he is. He feels rejected and a nobody and like nothing he does matters. He wants to write something meaningful and true, not like Hollywood.
  • He gets the gig to adapt The Orchid Thief, Susan and Charlie are searching for meaning. Meanwhile he has to be around his twin brother, Donald, aka his shadow self lives a life filled with meaning. He struggles a lot with failure and shame (lots of Esteem tank stuff happening here).
  • At the midpoint he has one of his imagination sessions, looking at Susan’s picture on the book jacket and hears her tell him,“Find the one thing that you care passionately about and write about that.” He realizes that the way into the story is Susan’s desire to want to know what it feels like to care about something passionately.
  • Ghost Orchid represents search for meaning – looking for it but can’t find it. When she does find it, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a flower.
  • “You are what you love, not what loves you” – Donald’s words to Charlie during his story about the girl he liked as a kid.
  • Orchid guy (John) and brother (Donald) have meaning in their lives and they both die in the end–Charlie is able to come away with meaning but Susan fails to do the same, falls into meaninglessness. Susan’s story is the mirror image of Charlie’s, an Education story that ends negatively…a cautionary tale.
  • In the end he kisses Amelia (finally) and admits he loves her (and she loves him) – he has the ending to the script. “He drives off, filled for the first time, with hope.”

If we compare Charlie in the opening scene and the final scene, we see he is pretty much the same guy: still a screenwriter, still single, still kind of neurotic, he’s lost his brother, but he has hope. He has the new story he’s telling himself about what events mean. The opening scene is a parallel to the story that Donald tells him–it doesn’t matter if the girl rejected him, no one could take away the love he had for her, not even her. And I think by the end, Charlie has that too–no one can take away the love he has for himself and his art, even if they reject it. This is meaning.

One convention we see in an Education story is that the character’s mindset/worldview changes but they don’t necessarily change their actions. They don’t have to, because these same actions now have meaning. Garbage man example.

In a Maturation story on the other hand, their mindset changes from thinking they know how the world works and chooses goals and actions based on that worldview, so when it changes they MUST change their goals and action, because the old doesn’t fit anymore.

Charlie doesn’t change his goal or actions, he’s just able to do them now with hope and joy because he’s found meaning.

To identify the internal genre of any story, use Friedman’s Framework.

  1. Identify the protagonist. ​(The person who undergoes the major change in the story, the one whose welfare is our chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves.)

Charlie Kaufman

  1. Identify the protagonist’s situation at the opening of the story.

2a. What is their character (willpower and motives), and do we find them sympathetic? (Morality)

Accepts the job, wants to make something “real”, pathetically sympathetic — his neurosis is familiar and endearing. Timid.

2b. What is their level of thought? Are they able to adapt their mindset to new information? Do they sufficiently understand their situation and the consequences of their actions, to be held accountable? (Worldview)

Self doubt, fear, high standards of art, rigid view about storytelling/structure

2c. What is their social standing (external situation), and do we fear it will get worse or hope it will better? (Status)

Single, lives alone, written a hit but not recognized on set

  1. Identify the protagonist’s situation at the end the of story and how the three internal elements have changed.

3a. What is their character and how has it changed?

Maintains his will to complete the script and stay true to his moral compass about art. Tells Amelia he loves her.

3b. What is their level of thought and how has it changed?

Views of his brother, Susan, art, change to help him find meaning. Ends with Hope for the first time.

3c. What is their social standing and how has it changed?

Single. Lives alone. Finishes his script (success unknown)

  1. What does the audience experience in light of this change? ​(This experience relates to the genre’s core emotion that the life value change evokes during the core event. This is vital delivering a satisfying story.)

Happy for him, he prevailed and has triumphed somehow over depression and found hope.

  1. Express this change as a cause and effect statement.​ (When a protagonist with_____ level of character and motive and _____ state of mind, experiences ______ external forces and changes _________, their outcome will be ______.)

Cause and Effect Statement for Adaptation: When an insecure screenwriter, with a cynical view of modern films as formulaic storytelling, struggles to adapt a book into a screenplay, he looks to his naively optimistic twin brother for help and, in spite of the shocking truth about the author and his brother’s death, finds meaning through love and is able to complete the script, continuing his life with hope.   

  1. Determine which Internal Genre-Subgenre best fits this cause and effect statement.

Worldview-Education: When a sympathetic protagonist, with a naive or cynical outlook, experiences an opportunity or challenge that enlightens them to a broader understanding, they find new meaning in their existing actions.

Conventions of Worldview-Education

    • Strong Mentor (someone who has found meaning) – Charlie’s brother Donald
    • Big Social Problem – fear & anxiety, lack of authenticity, lack of ability to show up as one’s true self. Charlie cites the shallow Hollywood blockbusters several times and how they are the epitome of this, and how much he doesn’t want to write a story like that–but he is living a life like that in way. He’s holding back for fear of judgment rather than bringing his full self to the page.
    • Shapeshifters as Hypocrites – Susan Orlean, writes this book full of deep themes about searching for meaning, connection, but then hasn’t found it herself. Has descended into meaningless masked as meaning through drugs and her obsession love with John Laroche.
  • A clear Point of No Return: the moment when the Protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be. Charlie and Donald discuss a time when they were kids that Donald was in love with a girl and she laughed at him behind his back. Donald knew it happened but he didn’t let it change him. “You are what you love, not what loves you.” This is the moment that Charlie will never be the same again.
  • Win-but-lose, lose-but-win bittersweet ending: has lost his brother, still single and lives alone, but has found hope through his brother’s example which helped him finish the script and move onto a more confident and authentic life.

Valerie: Obligatory Scenes Worldview>Maturation

  • An Inciting opportunity or challenge: Charlie Kaufman is asked to adapt Susan Orlean’s book about orchids.
  • Protagonist denies responsibility to respond to the opportunity or challenge: Charlie doesn’t want to a write what he calls a Hollywood script. He denies his responsibility as a writer to adhere to storytelling principles.
  • Forced to respond, the Protagonist lashes out against requirement to change behavior: When his agent presses him to deliver a script, Kaufman asks to be let out of the project. Then, when his agent suggests he ask Donald for help, Kaufman refuses and instead attends McKee’s seminar.
  • Protagonist learns what their external Antagonist’s Object of Desire is: The antagonist is Resistance and it wants to keep Charlie from writing the script. In this case, its using Charlie’s ego (naivete masked as sophistication) against him which is keeping him from creating his art.
  • Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails: Resistance is the thing that keeps Charlie from writing. He tries to outmaneuver it by asking to get out of the contract. However, his agent points out that if he doesn’t deliver anything after 13 weeks of stringing the studio along, it’ll be career suicide.
  • During an All Is Lost moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their black/white view of the world to allow for life’s irony: Charlie realizes that all is lost when his agent suggests that Charlie ask Donald for help. So, in desperation he changes his view of his art – or rather his approach to it – and attends the Mckee Story seminar.
  • The action moment is when the Protagonist’s gifts are expressed as acceptance of an imperfect world: Charlie’s talent as a screenwriter comes through in the third act. His gift as a writer comes through.
  • The protagonist’s loss of innocence is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the universe: Here, I’m interpreting loss of innocence as loss of naivete. When Charlie decides to listen to McKee and incorporate structure into his story, he’s rewarded with a script that works.

Rebuttal

Anne and Jarie – The fact that we disagree on the genre supports at least an argument that the genre isn’t clear—a broken rule—but also maybe that we’re all correct, and the movie is all these things.

The big thing missing from the cause and effect statement you gave is that the shocking turn of events and the deaths of Laroche and Donald are entirely false, absurd, and comedic, and all of it represents Charlie’s Big Performance. The third act—from the big chase scene onward–is the script he compromises his artistic beliefs on (Status genre) in order to meet his contractual obligation. He has “succeeded” in the sense that in the “real” world he has found his story, and on the meta level that he has finished it and seen it produced, because we’ve actually just watched it. But he has compromised by adapting, writing the ridiculous third act fantasy that Hollywood requires.

We seem to agree that the movie works, but for different reasons.

So what’s the takeaway for writers? First of all, kids, don’t try this at home! This is a really advanced story with complex narrative devices like nonlinear time and nested framing stories (at one point, I think I counted four layers deep). If this is a kind of story you want to explore in your own writing, choose your genre pairings carefully. If you have characters with entirely separate storylines in different genres–again, not for the faint of heart–chances are the only way you’ll be able to pull them together is with a trick.

On the other hand, if you choose compatible genres, like Performance and Status, or Love and Morality, it will be easier to tie your storylines together. The only other way I’ve seen this kind of thing carried off is in a series of loosely related stories with a recurring motif and theme. And this kind of story almost always falls into the literary style genre.

Which is definitely where I’d place Adaptation.

Leslie: Often literary stories are heavy and serious, but there are great examples of literary fiction combined with comedy style, among the authors writing novels like this are Tom Robbins, Christopher Moore, and Owen Egerton.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. If you have a question about genre mashups, literary style, absurdism , or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or leave us a voice message on the website at storygrid.com/resources, then click on Editor Roundtable Podcast.

This episode’s question is from Sue in Portland, who asks for an overview of which internal and external genres make great pairings, which make less-than-ideal pairings, and which are those external genres that don’t really need internal genres. Valerie tackles the question this week.

Join us next time to find out whether Leslie can make the case that the 1976 film Rocky is a great example of a Global Status Sentimental story told through the lens of the Virgin’s Promise. 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.

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.
Comments (2)
Author Leslie Watts

2 Comments

Roland Denzel says:

I like the new direction of the show. Very helpful. I’d also like to hear your ideas on what you thought the movie was going to be going in, based on advertisements, covers, trailers, and title. Several of your movies were clearly NOT what you expected going in.

In the past, you’ve often tried to peg the genre of various stories, then decide whether it met all the expectations of that genre (or genres, in some cases). I find it interesting, but not as helpful for authors. For most authors this is too late. If they publish (or even write) a book, it’s hard to go back in time and put it in the genre that it now fits into and have a success. The odds of hitting that genre perfectly are slim.

Many of these movies are successful despite not hitting the intended genre or telegraphing the genre to the moviegoer, but that’s not going to happen to a new novelist. Instead, readers will buy, expecting one thing, and stop reading out of disappointment. Bad reviews, etc will follow.

I think people are more forgiving for movies, where they’ve paid for two hours of passive entertainment. Readers can far more easily put the book down, which is why covers have to be genre specific, the categories need to be correct, and the blurbs have to tell the reader what to expect when they open the book.

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Anne Hawley says:

Hi Roland. We always have more fun with movies that failed to meet genre expectations. They’re either more interesting, or more fun to criticize, than the ones that align perfectly. We do find, though, that the really solid, meaty, lasting movies adhere to story principles while innovating–just as Shawn is always saying.

It’s true that some movies have succeeded despite not “working” by SG standards, but there seems to be a pretty sturdy correlation between mediocre or poor ratings/reviews and clear genre failure.

Clearly, we can’t be of any real help to authors on books they’ve already published. Our target audience is writers with new or in-progress works that are still subject to revision, who are trying to internalize Story Grid principles and level up.

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