Editor Roundtable: Black Swan

This week, Valerie pitched Black Swan as a great example of how to present a character’s psychological decline. This 2010 film was directed by Darren Aronofsky from a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin.

The Story

Genre: Global – Performance (arts or sports depending on how you categorize dance)

  • Beginning Hook – The dance company Nina Sayers belongs to decides to perform Swan Lake and will recast the role of The Swan Queen from the prima ballerina to a new dancer. When Nina blows her audition she must decide to accept the loss or do what she can to win the role. She decides to “doll herself up”, visit the artistic director to ask for the role. She refuses his advances (by biting his lip) and in doing so, is cast as the new Swan Queen.
  • Middle Build – This is the training part of the performance story. When Nina fails to fully dance the Black Swan, she must learn to let go of perfectionism and embrace raw seduction. But when she goes out with Lily to a bar and takes ecstasy, she loses control completely and her hallucinations take over. 
  • Ending Payoff – Not surprisingly, this is the performance of Swan Lake which is the core event of a performance story. Nina falls on stage during the show and when she “sees” Lily in her dressing room she must decide to ignore that Lily is preparing to take her role, or confront her. She confronts her, pushes her into the mirror and kills her. However, what she doesn’t realize is that Lily was a figment of her imagination and she has in fact, stabbed herself. Nina finishes the show giving a brilliant performance but dies from her injuries.

The Principle – Valerie – Presenting a Character’s Psychological Decline

This season I’m studying psychological thrillers because that’s what I’m writing and I want to understand how this sub-genre works. Since that’s the case, why have I chosen Black Swan? According to Wikipedia, it’s a psychological thriller (other sources have called it a drama or mystery), but here at Story Grid, we recognize it as a global performance story. 

Believe it or not, it’s a fairly straightforward performance story with a hero’s journey, but the writers have innovated the heck out of it by combining it with the psychological downward spiral of the protagonist. Even though Nina dies at the end, the controlling idea is actually positive. Stay with me on this … 

Controlling Idea: Nina gains enormous respect because she committed to expressing her gifts unconditionally. 

How could it possibly be positive if the protagonist dies at the end? It sounds counterintuitive at first, but we’ve seen this in other stories too; Gran Torino is the example that’s coming to mind. Nina has given everything for her art and has given a perfect performance which is what she wanted. Of course this is also the win-but-lose ending that a performance story requires. Yet, all this notwithstanding, it’s a cautionary tale. 

Mind-blowing, brilliant storytelling if you ask me.

A quick recap: psychological thrillers are in the process of evolving. Not too long ago, the villain was someone removed from the hero, and whose mental condition could be medically diagnosed. Primal Fear is an example. Gradually, the source of evil (ie the insane person) moved closer to the hero; it could be someone he knew or was related to. In 2012, another shift began with Gone Girl. There, the source of evil is even closer to home. It’s both the protagonists’ spouse and self (since both Nick and Amy are protagonists). With the publication of The Girl On The Train in 2015, the question of sanity refers to the protagonist herself. 

Check out The Girl On The Train episode for more information. 

Furthermore, the whole notion of mental health is changing within these stories. It used to be that being insane and being evil were the same thing. There are all kinds of examples of this; Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter (The Silence of the Lambs), The Joker (Batman)…the list goes on.

That’s no longer the case. Remember, stories evolve as society evolves. That means that while the big categories of genre might not shift overnight, the sub-genres within them will ebb and flow, and take on deeper meaning. My theory is that since the stigma around mental health issues is finally starting to ease (although we’ve got a lot of work left to do!), characters are no longer black and white (insane or sane). Instead, they’re becoming much more nuanced representations of another point along that value spectrum; the shades of grey are being explored. Also, since more women writers are starting to explore uniquely female stories, we’re starting to see how female characters deal with the challenges they face in today’s society.

Ok, so this brings me back to the question I asked a minute ago. If I’m writing a thriller, why have I pitched a performance story? It’s because Black Swan addresses the kind of psychological issues I’m exploring in my novel. All the psychological thrillers that I found had a female protagonist who either suffered from substance abuse, or was in an asylum of some kind. That’s not the scenario I’ve set up. This is why we consume stories widely and deeply. The answers to the creative questions we have might not be found within the existing body of work for our global genre. Nina’s situation is similar to my protagonist’s, so I wanted to see how these storytellers approached her descent from sanity to insanity. Where does she start on that value spectrum and where does she end? How does it unfold? If there’s a link to the hero’s or heroine’s journey, what is it? And, which internal genre do they use?

We’re going to talk more about internal genre in a bit, so for now let me focus on how the filmmakers created Nina’s slow descent into madness.

Beginning Hook: Nina isn’t fully sane. Hints that she’s already under tremendous pressure (and has been for some time), she’s stealing from Beth, demonstrates signs of anxiety (vomiting, scratching), is obsessive about dance (even dreaming about it), hallucinating (sees herself (shadow version) in tunnel). Is the word “whore” actually written on the mirror in red lipstick, or is this her subconscious speaking (because she knows what she’s done to get the part)?

Note: this is a pretty typical scenario for a woman in her career. How do you get ahead? By “dolling up” and being (or seeming to be) available. 

Middle Build: P10 – progressively complicating her mental condition (with each new stress point her symptoms worsen)

Small issues escalate: painting blinks, rash on back a little worse than in BH (after she gets the part of the Swan Queen), still under mother’s control (eats cake), bleeding finger/fingernail at announcement party, rash worsens again after the party, after Thomas’s seduction dance blood drops in bathtub and rash worsens further.

Thomas says she could be brilliant if she wasn’t so weak. Conflict with Lily in high gear as Lily speaks to Thomas about her. This is followed by the scene on the train with the old man. Is this a hallucination or not?

Midpoint Shift: Nina lashes out at her mother – mutters under her breath (“what career, you were 28”), clear vocal “no”, goes on the town with Lily.

Steep spiral: After Nina’s adventure with Lily, hallucinations get much worse [(sex with Lily), voices whispering, multiple mirror images in costume fitting scene, paranoia (“Lily’s after me. She wants my role.”), hallucinations in rehearsal room (mirror, Thomas/Lily backstage), hallucinations in Beth’s hospital room, all the paintings screaming, Beth in Nina’s room, physically transforming into a black swan (legs buckle, eyes red, feathers sprouting)], Nina physically attacks her mother.

Ending Payoff (the performance):  Nina overthrows her mother, confronts Thomas. Thomas advises her to “lose herself”. 

  • Act I + first intermission: Toes joined (webbed feet forming), losing control as watches corps de ballet (hears voices, sees self in chorus, falls, cries and Thomas says show is a disaster). Public humiliation: negation of the negation. Followed by most dramatic hallucination: Lily/Nina in dressing room dressing room, killing “Lily”, swan neck. 
  • Act II + second intermission: Nina transforms into black swan in dance, but also in hallucination (wings and all). Receives standing ovation and roses. Transcends to express her true gift (but at what price?). Lily at dressing room door (Nina’s full realization of her mental state and that she’s stabbed herself – leans into it)
  • Act III: Nina dances with abandon. She’s leaving it all on the stage and ultimately dies for her craft (cautionary tale). But, before she does, she says that she has finally achieved perfection. 

This is all terrific stuff and it gives me valuable guidance as I continue to work on my own novel. However, film is a visual medium so my next task is to figure out how to represent this on the page. But that’s for another day. 

In preparing for this episode, I ended up with way more information than I could use – or even include in the show notes. So, I’ve created an Inner Circle for anyone who wants to learn more about how to research a genre, or how I’m using Story Grid as a drafting tool for my novel. If this is something you’d like to be part of, click here to sign up. 

Kim – Status-Tragic Conventions & Obligatory Scenes

Leslie and I have been nerding out on Conventions and Obligatory Scenes for our upcoming book on the topic. And recently at SGLive, I had the privilege of giving a talk about it. So I thought I’d take a closer look at how the C&OS establish and turn the life values across the spine of the story.

First up, we use Friedman’s Framework to determine the genre … Nina is our protagonist. We want to look at her internal state and the beginning and end.

Nina at beginning

  • Character – strong will and ambitious in ballet
  • Thought – naive about sex
  • Fortune – talented dancer in an elite company, dependent on her mother

Nina at the end

  • Character – her will gets even stronger and more ambitious, she is willing to commit “murder” for her role.
  • Thought – she has experiences that make her less naive about sex, but she can’t trust her own thoughts because she is losing her sanity. Misinterprets events and straight up hallucinates. This is not sophistication, it’s the negation of the negation. Has a worldview-revelation moment when she realizes Lily is still alive and the person she stabbed was herself. 
  • Fortune – loses her sanity which causes her to self-harm, achieves perfection as The Black Swan, dies after this singular great performance, rather than going on to perform for the length of her career.

What has changed? If more than one, which is the most significant? I.e. what is the story about?

  • All three of Nina’s internal elements have changed, and I’d say for the worst. 

    • Character +/-, ends at selfishness.
    • Thought – I would map her thought on the Worldview-Revelation spectrum of Ignorance and Knowledge rather than Worldview-Maturation spectrum of Naivete and Sophistication. She struggles with what is factually real or unreal. Nina’s arc doesn’t quite fit a revelation arc because she is aware of what is happening but chooses to ignore it (doesn’t seek help). I’d map it as +/- or even -/–. 
    • Fortune + / –, achieves success and “perfection” but sells out her sanity and her future.

So if all three things have changed, what’s the genre? 

There are a lot of tools we can use here (Core Event, Core Emotion, C&OS, 15 Core Scenes), which we’ll walk through in a moment. We can also take a step back and look at the Big Meta Why for this story, and the universal truth the storyteller is trying to convey. From here I think it it’s clear. 

This is absolutely a cautionary tale about pursuing success and external validation. Beware your ambition for success, you may achieve what you want but it will cost you everything. 

In all our work on Internal Genres, Leslie and I put together a spreadsheet that details the various elements each genre. Internal Genre Elements Sheet

Here is what we have for Status-Tragic

  • Sympathetic protagonist
  • Ambitious
  • Sophisticated enough to see the consequences of their actions
  • Lacks an adequate mentor and makes a serious mistake in their attempt to rise
  • Unable to (positively) change in thought or character
  • Tragic fall in social standing, often death
  • Audience experience: Pity mixed with a sense of justice
  • When a sympathetic protagonist, ambitious and sophisticated enough to see the consequences of their actions, lacks an adequate mentor and makes a serious mistake in their attempt to rise, the result is a tragic fall in social standing, and often death.

For Nina, her Status-Tragic cause and effect statement goes something like this:

  • When an elite ballerina with a history of mental illness ambitiously pursues perfection as the Black Swan despite the toll on her mind, and refuses to listen to her overbearing mother or to seek help from others, she loses her sanity completely, resulting in a single perfect performance followed by her death. 

Let’s look closer at the Status-Tragic genre and the experience intended for the audience …

Human needs tank = Esteem (self and third party validation)

Life values = success / failure (internal definitions), in this case for Nina it’s about perfection

Raise the question in the beginning hook: will the protagonist do what is necessary to obtain their definition of success?

Conventions:

  • Cast of characters

    • Specific type of protagonist (not all protagonists are capable of fulfilling every genre)
    • Other specific archetypes and roles required to create the meaningful arc. For example in Action we must have a hero, victim, villain. In Status and Worldview we have the mentor and shapeshifter. 
  • Setting 
    • Reality, Time, Place
    • Other genres at play
    • Supports the possibility of conflict
  • Means of turning the plot
    • Specific circumstances generates conflict and progresses the story

Introducing these conventions establish life values. And the OS change the life values—turns them. You can think of conventions like nouns and obligatory scenes like verbs. OS are key moments in the story where the LV change.

Obligatory Scenes:

  • Events

    • Inciting incident-challenge or opportunity
    • Complications
  • Revelations
    • Complications
  • Decisions
    • Complications
    • Climaxes
    • Core event

Conventions establish/setup LV and then OS turn the LV/payoff. Together they create the pattern of life values that the audience recognizes as the genre. 

If we are creating a Status-Tragic arc, we know quite a few things going in … 

  • LV Spectrum and Range (highs and lows)

    • Success
    • Compromise
    • Failure
    • Selling Out
  • LV at beginning – positive inciting incident
  • LV at end – negative ending, will reach the negation of the negation at some point in the story.

So if we look at the spine of a Status-Tragic story … 

Beginning Hook

  • Status quo created through introduction conventions, establish opening LV

    • Demonstrate the nature of protagonist 
  • Global Inciting Incident is our first obligatory scene—an opportunity, seen as positive
  • Demonstrate the nature of antagonism
  • Protagonist will define success for themselves and pursue it with their current skillset 

Middle Build

  • Introduce more conventions and progressive complications.
  • Protagonist will experience failure
  • Global Turning Point — major life value shift 
  • Global Crisis

Ending Payoff

  • Global Climax
  • Global Resolution

The list:

Status Conventions

  • Strong Mentor Figure. Note that in a Status-Tragic story, the mentor is absent, inadequate, or the protagonist refuses to heed sound advice. In Black Swan we have a lot of half mentors … but no one that she trusts who is able to reach her

    • Her mother
    • The Ballet Director Thomas Leary
    • Lily
  • Big Social Problem as subtext
    • Mental illness, ageism, women’s role in society
  • Shapeshifters as Hypocrites (secondary characters say one thing and do another).
    • Lily – perceived hypocrisy through Nina’s hallucinations 
    • Thomas
  • The Herald or Threshold Guardian is a fellow striver who sold out.
    • Her mother gave up dancing in order to have Nina / be a mother. This doesn’t feel like selling out as much as a new definition of success. However, there seems to be elements of overbearing and infantilizing Nina, which makes her an inadequate mentor–one that Nina rejects and does not seek for true help when she needs it.
    • Perhaps Beth also could fit this role. Let her need for success destroy her self esteem.
  • 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.
    • This feels like when she “kills Lily” and then hides the body so she can go onstage. “It’s my turn now”
    • Also when she discovers that she has not in fact killed Lily but instead stabbed herself. She could get help immediately but doesn’t. She’d rather risk her life and finish her performance.
  • Ironic Win-But-Lose or Lose-But-Win bittersweet ending.
    • She achieves a singular perfect performance and then dies. This feels like all the artistic geniuses in the world who we lose too early. And is precisely the reason Tim Grahl wrote his book Running Down A Dream—because being an artist shouldn’t cost you your sanity or your life. There is a better way.

Status Obligatory Scenes

  • An Inciting opportunity or challenge.

    • Nina is chosen to audition for the role of the Swan Queen
  • Protagonist leaves home to seek fortune.
    • No denial of the call, accepts readily / eagerly
  • Forced to adapt to a new environment, Protagonist relies on old habits and humiliates himself or herself.
    • Dances both roles–white swan and black swan–with perfect technique, but that is not what the director wants. The Black Swan is meant to be raw and seductive.
  • The Protagonist learns what the Antagonist’s Object of Desire is and sets out to achieve it for him- or herself.
    • Lily wants to be the Black Swan too, Lily knows how to let go and dance with raw seduction
    • Her mother wants to control her and keep her safe
  • Protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver Antagonist fails.
    • Nina revolts again a her mother by going out with Lily, taking ecstasy.
    • Lily is set up to take her place on stage.
  • During an All Is Lost Moment, Protagonist realizes they must change their definition of success or risk betraying their morality.
    • Nina realizes that her sexual encounter with Lily was a hallucination. She needs to seek help right away. 
    • She visits Beth in the hospital and returns all the things she stole from her
  • The Core Event: Protagonist chooses to do what’s necessary to attain status or reject the world that they strived to join.
    • Nina “kills Lily” in order to become the Black Swan
  • Protagonist saves or loses him/herself based on their action in the Core Event.
    • Dies because of her self inflicted injury that she chooses to ignore in order to finish her perfect performance.

It’s important to understand that the Conventions and Obligatory Scenes are not merely a list to be checked off and included, but are the individual threads woven into the very fabric of the story that create its unique and vibrant design.

When you examine masterworks, look for the elements and moments that signal the life values to you. Make note of what they are and how the function in context of the other elements and momenta around them. Where are they in relation to the story spine. 

If you know the life values for your genre and the satisfying experience you wish to create for your audience, you can solve for the conventions and obligatory scenes. Ask yourself, “what does my audience need to know right now?”

Having “The List” is just a bonus. 

Valerie – Worldview-Maturation 

I don’t agree that Black Swan is a global internal genre story, but I do agree that the internal genre is very strong. To be honest, I also thought it was status>tragic at first, but then I took a closer look at it and I think there’s another interpretation. We’ve all heard Shawn say that sometimes “it’s squishy” – this is exactly the kind of thing he’s talking about. When a story is really well-crafted, there are layers to it which means there are different ways of interpreting it. And Black Swan, as creepy and disturbing as it is, is a well-crafted story.

The only way we’ll know for sure what the writers intended, is to ask them. Since that’s not an option, I want to offer up another take on the internal genre. I think it’s important that we take a few minutes to discuss this because Nina’s psychological state is exactly what we’re studying this week. 

Ok, if we look at the Story Grid material we have right now, there isn’t a spectrum of value, in any of the 12 content genres, for sane > insane. What does that mean? Do we need a new thing, or is the loss of sanity a side-effect of something else? I would need to do a lot more research to come up with something definitive (and maybe this kind of story is so new, we’re making it up as we go along!), but at the moment, my theory is that the protagonist’s sanity is at stake because of something else. It’s like a secondary value shift to the primary one of the content genre at play.

In other words, this is the kind of nuance that can be added to the existing internal genres. The protagonist’s sanity is at stake because of:

  • the desire for status that she has,
  • the shock of the worldview shift she experiences, or
  • the pressure of the moral question she’s facing.

So, does that make Black Swan a status story, a worldview story or a morality story? 

Status: Nina seeks validation and does rise in status. No question about it. And status stories are often paired with performance stories. Jarie sees it as admiration and Kim sees it as tragic, but I’m not completely sold. I don’t think there’s an issue of compromise here — Nina values her performance. She’s not expected to compromise, nor does she decide to/intend to compromise, her artistic values.

She’s expected to, and wants to, express her gift to it her utmost limit; to achieve perfection. How she does that is up to her. 

She rebels against her mother in a self-destructive way, but does that mean she’s compromising her values or is this the kind of stupid stuff that teenagers and young adults do as they mature? There’s a case for both here. Lily and Thomas test her, but both back down when she refuses them. She’s the one who voluntarily does what they suggest (night on the town with Lily, taking the drugs, kissing Thomas). 

And I don’t think Nina has failed – not in terms of her object of desire (perfection in her performance). In fact, she triumphs! Ironically, death doesn’t equal failure. What this does is exemplify the win-but-lose ending required of a performance story. 

Is the story a tragedy in terms of a loss of life being tragic? Absolutely. But when it comes to the Story Grid genres, status>tragic requires the protagonist to fail. So it will depend, I guess, on whether you see Nina has having failed to achieve her object of desire (the perfect performance) or not.

Morality: Nina self-transcends by the end of the story (Thomas even talks about the need for transcendance in the beginning hook). She surrenders to her gift utterly and completely. But her arc doesn’t fit into any of the sub-genres for a morality story, nor does it adhere to the value spectrum. I think we’re in agreement that this isn’t a morality story.

Worldview: This brings me to worldview, and believe it or not, I think Black Swan is a standard maturation plot. Yup, I’m as surprised as you are! There are elements of status>tragic for sure, but primarily it’s a maturation plot because Nina has to learn what it means to be a true artist. Hear me out.

Nina starts at the negation of the negation; naivete masked as sophistication. Everything about her is child-like. Her voice, her bedroom, her clothes (white or light coloured, contrast this with Lily’s black), her desire to please her mother (her mother even puts her to bed), and most importantly her belief that great technique is the definition of artistic perfection. She is leading an incredibly sheltered life. For her, there is only ballet. She has no personal life, and has no experience outside the world of dance (she’s a virgin and hasn’t had a serious boyfriend), and doesn’t understand what it takes to be the prima ballerina. Even at rehearsal the night before the show, the pianist stops playing and says “I’ve got a life. Don’t work too hard. It’s your big day tomorrow.” She’s so naive that she doesn’t even recognize Beth’s warning.

By the end of the story, she has catapulted all the way to the ultimate positive values of sophistication and wisdom. She has rebelled against her mother (a classic stage of maturation), experienced a little of the world and has confronted her inner demons (her wild side or the Black Swan). At the end of the middle build, Nina visits Beth in the hospital and apologies for not heeding the warning. “I know how it feels now.” During the performance Nina realizes (and we see this in Natalie Portman’s performance) that what Thomas said in the BH is true. “Perfection is not just about control. It is also about letting go. Surprise yourself so you can surprise the audience. Transcendence. Very few have it in them.” Sadly, once she starts to let herself go, she can’t stop.

Nonetheless, by the end of the film her view of the world generally, and of her world of dance, has changed forever. 

By the end of her performance, as she lays dying on the crash mat, she whispers “perfect” – she understands now that to achieve artistic perfection she has to embrace her dark side. It’s not about perfect technique, it’s about surrendering to the performance; it’s about bringing life experiences into the art so that she can express it better. 

In terms of the needs tank, worldview requires Nina to self-actualize. I think she blows past this stage pretty quickly on her way to self-transcendence. 

Are there elements of status and morality? Yes, of course. In a story this nuanced, there’s bound to be. But for my money, I’m betting on the primary internal genre being worldview and I think there’s plenty in the film to support that.

Jarie – Parental Love Driving Opposing Forces 

This season we have seen several antagonists that were mothers. In Like Water for Chocolate, Mama Elena represents the Opposing Forces/Moral Weight keeping Tita and Pedro apart and in Crazy Rich Asians, we have Nick’s mother Eleanor, who attempts to keep Nick and Rachel apart because she wants to protect her family and uphold the norms of society. We see a similar dynamic in The Black Swan with Nina and her mother Erica, who pushes her daughter to be what she could not be — a successful prima ballerina, which is embodied by the line “I’m the Swan Queen, you’re the one who never left the corps!” when Nina pushes herself past her mother to go perform.

What all three of these mother characters have in common is that they all want to force their children to fulfill a dream or obligation to society or family. What makes Erica a powerful antagonist for Nina is that she isolates Nina in a world of never good enough, don’t fail like me, and conditional love based on performance. It’s no wonder that Nina’s real antagonist is her paranoid delusions that everyone is out to get her. It’s the similar method the writer used in The Girl on the Train, with Rachel’s husband Tom being the antagonist that’s feeding Rachel’s delusions. In that case, Tom clearly wants to control Rachel to cover up his infidelity and general creepiness. That’s where you can see the difference between a psychological thriller (The Girl on the Train) and the price of perfection (The Black Swan). What is fascinating is how the writer uses psychological thriller techniques to show us the price of perfection as Nina slips into insanity. Part of that setup is parental love driving opposing forces.

The way that The Black Swan sets up Erica as the “loving” stage mom is made more powerful because Nina wants to please her at first. This dynamic, right down to the fact that Nina still lives with her mom at 28, drives the creepiness factor up even more. It’s in the confined space of their apartment, filled with Erica’s dashed dreams for stardom and Nina’s room, which is still adorned like a little girls, that gives the perfect environment to fuel Nina’s delusions. The scenes where the paintings come to life and torture Nina make the tension greater and drive home the power that Erica has over Nina.

In general, the parental character that is trying to right a past mistake can be either maternal or paternal. This is the Strong Mentor Figure and/or Opposing Forces (Source of Antagonism). What ups the game to a Power of 10 is the paternal aspect where the protagonist gets Mentor, Opposing Forces, and parental love all at various times. For writers, developing these characters seems to depend on the following character dynamics:

  • The child respects the parents past accomplishments
  • The parents actions are “for your own good.”
  • Love is conditional upon adhering to the parents wishes
  • One parent is more dominant than the other so there is no counter balance. It’s one worldview.
  • A parent’s past mistake haunts and drives their current actions
  • The child must decide to forever be dominated by the parent or strike out on their own.

The relationship between Nina and Erica has all of these characteristics. It sets up the environment in which Nina can descend into madness. This also plays into the common misconception that there is a sub-plot of parental love at play or rather that it’s a parental love story sub-plot. Let’s look a little into that.

Love stories are about the prospect of physical and emotional intimacy between lovers. At the highest level, it’s a coming together of equals to form an intimate romantic bond that’s stronger than the parts. The dynamics of parental love don’t follow that trajectory since it is not a coming together of equals to form an intimate romantic bond. Rather, the parent/child relationship is never equal and the dynamics of the relationship seem to evolve over time. This creates the tension of breaking away from the parent or role reversal where the child now has more power over the parent. I think that’s why parental love fits better into the Society > Domestic content genre than the Love content genre since parent/child dynamics revolve around personal power instead of intimacy.

Parental love driving opposing forces lends itself nicely to performance stories since it puts in the reader/viewer’s mind the question of “does the protagonist really want it or is it to please their parent(s).” To me, that’s what the writer did so well in The Black Swan. They made me question Nina’s commitment to dancing and that made the tension for me even greater than the delusions. At times, I felt that Erica was maybe even drugging her. It made it all the more creepy for me and I think was a good way to innovate the parental relationship dynamic.

Anne – Some New Scene Types 

Given Valerie’s interest this season in looking at how psychological decline play into a thriller, I was curious to see how the screenwriters and director used scene types to help build the case for the protagonist’s faulty perceptions and weak character.

It’s tempting to point out all sorts of directorial choices–notably the presence of mirrors in almost every scene, or the strange and jarring renditions of Tchaikovsky in the score–but my job is to see past those purely cinematic elements to the structure of the scenes.

As I’ve been discovering this season, the way to ferret out scene and beat types is to look at 

  • how many characters are in the scene
  • what kind of activity they’re engaged in
  • what type of setting surrounds them

Once I find those, I consider what the characters are trying to do, and how their setting helps or hinders them. 

In Black Swan, the protagonist is either literally alone in the scene, or figuratively alone in a crowd a great deal of the time, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but first I need to pick out a scene type that’s critically important in Performance stories, and that is:

The Practice scene. Of course in a Performance story you’re going to have several scenes of practicing or performing, whether the performance is puzzles–as in Puzzle; boxing, as in Rocky; climbing a ladder and writing calculations on a high chalkboard, as in Hidden Figures; or dancing, as we have here, and in Billy Elliot. We see Nina doing her warmups, practicing with the corps de ballet, rehearsing her solos…I didn’t count them, but there are a lot.

The purpose of this scene type is to fulfill a convention of the genre: Training. We need to see the protagonist developing their skill and clashing with the mentor–in this case both the director Thomas and Nina’s weird mother. 

These conventions set up the big obligatory scenes–forced to perform, performing and failing, regrouping, and of course the core event, the big performance

It’s important to note that almost exactly the same sequence of conventions and obligatory scenes plays out in War stories, which are structurally very similar.

However, in my effort to abstract scene types further, I wondered if scenes of preparing to perform can be abstracted further and have an analog in other kinds of stories as well. I think they might. 

Preparing the Tools: One of our Story Grid friends, Simon Townley, left a great insight in a comment on our Scene Types Part 1 post. He suggested a “Prepare your weapon or your tools scene” and gave the examples “before battle, Aragorn sharpens his sword. A platoon of infantry might strip down and prepare their guns. A painter might be mixing his paint, a carpenter sharpening his tools.” 

And that scene, that quiet preparation before doing the thing, happens here in Black Swan: we get detailed images of Nina preparing her toe shoes, sewing on the laces, cracking the soles, rubbing the toes in resin. 

What purpose does this Preparing the Tools scene type serve in a story? Isn’t it just shoe leather (or shoe satin, in this case)?

I don’t think so. As Simon goes on to say, “It’s a scene for a slow, considered discussion, but with danger or crisis lurking in the near future.” 

Here in Black Swan there isn’t much slow, considered discussion, but the Preparing the Tools scenes are quiet, and they’re full of tension, because we know that what’s being prepared for is so far beyond what we as ordinary non-ballerinas have to deal with. 

In showing us the tools of the trade, so to speak, this scene type demonstrates the expertise, commitment, and training of the protagonists. It shows how specialized and focused a Performance or War protagonist must be. It sets the performers and warriors apart from ordinary humans. 

Here’s a thought exercise: outside the Performance and War genres, why would you write a Preparing the Tools scene? 

I don’t have the answer yet, but all sorts of protagonists–and antagonists–do and make things in all kinds of stories. Should you write the mixing of the paint in a Love story, or the sharpening of the chisels in a Status story? Should you dwell on the tools of the trade at all? 

I think there’s a case to made for it, under the heading of “admiration.” If you want your reader to admire the skill or dedication of any character, you could probably use a Preparing the Tools scene to do it. But if the thing being prepared for isn’t central to your story, as it is in a Performance or War story (or a big battle scene in an Action story), I’d say use a light hand.

Back to Black Swan. It gives us one other interesting scene type to add to the list:

Taking public transit. Nina rides the subway to work and home a few times. What’s the difference between this and other transportation type scenes like Conversation in a Car?

Well, the most obvious is that the public transit rider is alone in a crowd. In one version of the scene type, Nina sees a woman who looks a lot like either herself or her mother on the train, but it’s so crowded that she can’t get closer to find out, and the other woman gets off at the next stop, disappearing forever. 

In another and much more disturbing version of the same scene type, Nina is on a late, uncrowded train, and a man sitting across from her makes disgusting gestures and noises of sexual harassment  towards her. 

The purpose of both variations is powerlessness. When you get on a public bus or train, you’re trapped. You’re caged for the duration. If you want to get where you have to go, you have to put up with the ride. If your enemy gets on, you can’t get off till at least the next stop–and the enemy is free to follow you.

In the second instance, with the sexual harassment, we wonder why Nina doesn’t at least get up and move down the carriage to get away from the lewd man, but the fact that she feels she can’t tells us a lot about how powerless she feels inside.

Crowded transit scenes are excellent for building frustration and tension, hanging tantalizing clues before us that get away, and creating near-miss situations that increase the sense of urgency.

There’s another purpose, too: In The Girl on the Train and Puzzle, this scene type was used multiple times to build a clear sense of the protagonist being trapped in habitual patterns. In both cases, as in Black Swan, riding the train or subway shows a circumscribed life, where the character can’t even choose the route to and from work.

Note that this is fundamentally different from flying in an airplane. You’re still trapped, but no one can get on or off–you’re all in it together for the duration.

Should you use public transit scenes just to show your character getting from point A to point B? Nope. All by itself, it’s shoe leather, and 99 times out of a hundred, it doesn’t forward your story. It’s best not to show people moving from place to place unless the form of transportation adds tension, information, and characterization.

One other note about the scene types in Black Swan: the scenes not involving dancing reflect ballet tropes. Every pas de deux dance scene–that is, where two principal dancers perform a duet–is reflected by a similar two person real life scene, where Nina and her mother, or Nina and Thomas the director, figuratively and conversationally dance around each other while the stronger character figuratively moves, lifts, spins and shifts Nina around. 

Similarly, scenes where Nina is alone in a crowd, as she is while riding the subway, echo and reflect her role as an isolated solo dancer against a backdrop of the faceless, nameless corps de ballet

It’s all very cinematic in Black Swan, but I mention it because that kind of intentional, subtle symbolism can add a lot of depth to your written story, too.

Listener Question

 To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Ashanti Brown Cook via Twitter. Shanti asks,

“In a book series does the main content genre for each book have to be the same as the content genre for the overarching series?”

Leslie: Thank you Ashanti. This is a great question! The short answer is no, the global genre for the series and the individual books within the series don’t have to be the same. They should make sense together and complement one another, but they don’t need to be precisely the same. 

So how do you make sure they complement each other? It depends on whether the series is one like Harry Potter or Sherlock Holmes stories, but you’ll want a thread that ties the stories together–so the reader knows what to expect. For a series like Harry Potter with a continuing storyline, one way to approach it is to think about the controlling idea for the entire series and what piece of that puzzle each book in the series contributes.

In a series like Sherlock Holmes, the main character and the type of problem they face is the thread that ties the stories together, that often means it’s the same genre, but could amount to different subgenres within the same genre. I hope that helps. Thanks for the question, Ashanti!

 If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

It’s 15 minutes of Story Grid 101 next time as Anne Hawley brings you a bite-size episode on the fourth of the Editor’s Six Core Questions: Objects of Desire.

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 (10)
Author Leslie Watts

10 Comments

Eric Polyn says:

Thank you for choosing Black Swan. I was excited to listen to this episode as I’ve done some analysis of this film as a guide for my own writing. I’ve been having a lot of trouble nailing down my own genre in what is a similar story. Hearing that the roundtable didn’t exactly agree on global genre (Performance vs. Psychological Thriller, etc) was reassuring. Being inculcated in Story Grid and knowing I’m having trouble answering the very first of the core questions gives me fits sometimes, but this conversation helps me understand ‘squishiness’.

Having thought deeply about this film, I wanted to share some observations. First, I’d recommend the interviews and conversations found on the bonus features of the Black Swan DVD for some insight into the writing. I forget exactly who says it (screenwriter or director?) but Dostoyevsky’s The Double is revealed as an inspiration. I tried to read The Double, but didn’t get too far.

Some similar works or works sharing themes that I wanted to throw in the conversation:

Birdman — The obvious theme of Mental Decline also occuring during the stressful approach of a big performance.
8 Mile — Think “Lose Yourself”.
Whiplash — Whiplash belongs in the conversation as well, but I’m not sure exactly how. Intense pursuit perhaps.

The only question I really have – are there any literary examples that fit the performance psychodrama category? (other than The Double).

As with many of your episodes I’m going to listen to this one again (probably a few times). Thanks for sharing your insights. In Story Grid We Trust.

EP

Also! “cracking the leather”! — Thanks for pointing this out at. I thought Nina was cracking her feet or toes or something and was always disgusted by that noise. I thought it was just part of the creepy imagery.

Reply
Eric Polyn says:

Thank you for choosing Black Swan. I was excited to listen to this episode as I’ve done some analysis of this film as a guide for my own writing. I’ve been having a lot of trouble nailing down my own genre in what is a similar story. Hearing that the roundtable didn’t exactly agree on global genre (Performance vs. Psychological Thriller, etc) was reassuring. Being inculcated in Story Grid and knowing I’m having trouble answering the very first of the core questions gives me fits sometimes, but this conversation helps me understand ‘squishiness’.

Having thought deeply about this film, I wanted to share some observations. First, I’d recommend the interviews and conversations found on the bonus features of the Black Swan DVD for some insight into the writing. I forget exactly who says it (screenwriter or director?) but Dostoyevsky’s The Double is revealed as an inspiration. I tried to read The Double, but didn’t get too far.

Some similar works or works sharing themes that I wanted to throw in the conversation:

Birdman — The obvious theme of Mental Decline occurring during the stressful approach of a big performance.
8 Mile — Think “Lose Yourself”.
Whiplash — Whiplash belongs in the conversation as well, but I’m not sure exactly how. Intense pursuit perhaps.

The only question I really have – are there any literary examples that fit the performance psychodrama category? (other than The Double).

As with many of your episodes I’m going to listen to this one again (probably a few times). Thanks for sharing your insights. In Story Grid We Trust.

EP

Also! “cracking the leather”! — Thanks for pointing this out at. I thought Nina was cracking her feet or toes or something and was always disgusted by that noise. I thought it was just part of the creepy imagery.

Reply
Valerie Francis says:

Hi Erin, I don’t think it’s a psychological thriller at all, but rather a performance story with a psychological element. Wikipedia lists it as a psychological thriller, other sources lists it as a mystery or a drama.

Reply
Jonathan Berman says:

“In Story Grid We Trust”! Love that.

Just want to mention a (hopefully correct) recollection that may laterally bolster some of Valerie’s interpretation. Sometime back I heard a podcast with Aronofsky – I think it was either Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” on WNYC or The Tim Ferriss Show – in which he was discussing his challenge with “Requiem for a Dream” in determining who was the protagonist/hero (this is where I grow hazy; not sure if he separated or conflated the two terms) with regard to the story’s arc. He decided that this “main character” was Addiction (my emphasis) itself, and the arc reflected Addiction’s victory over the others. Being aware of this might give some insight into his thought process as he wrote about Nina’s descent.

Reply
Valerie Francis says:

Oh! I must look for this podcast episode. I haven’t heard Alec Baldwin’s show yet (although I’ve heard good things). Tim Ferriss’s show is a staple. 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

Reply
Eric Polyn says:

Adding to the genre conversation — In The Secrets of the Performance Genre (posted to Storygrid.com in 2018 by Rachelle Ramirez) Black Swan is included as an example of a story featuring a performer that is not a Performance genre story, but actually a Status Worldview. In this episode of the Round Table we here arguments for it being a ‘psychological thriller’, Status-tragic or a Performance genre, so I wanted to add another just to be difficult.

The most bare bones description of Black Swan that I can come up with is ‘ballerina cracks’ (see the image on the Blu-ray cover for the visual). Nailing down what Black Swan is requires the mental illness and the performance. There is no story here without the psychological fracturing. Poor Nina is suffering from some undiagnosed psychosis depicted comparably to what we see in Birdman, A Beautiful Mind, and Fight Club (and I suppose The Double….). But we also have the performance story – BH: Nina gets the part, MB: Nina prepares for the part, EP: The big performance.

Robert McKee (in Story) includes Psycho-drama as a sub genre of the ‘social drama’, characterized by struggles with mental illness. Psycho-drama isn’t even on the Story Grid genre clover (an aside, Sean: why not?) but I’m comfortable calling Black Swan a Performance Psycho-drama and Birdman is the only other analog I can come up with. Status is surely a part of it, Nina’s fear of losing her part is status driven, but the conventions that make this film stand out are those of the Performance Psycho-drama.

I don’t have the complete list of these conventions, but consider these: mentally ill protagonist, a mental illness which becomes more intense throughout the story (escalating on powers of ten perhaps), stress amplifies the symptoms of psychosis, an outstanding final performance that is definitively ‘final’…

Maybe I’m off the mark, but it feels right, especially as I work on my own similar project. I look at Birdman and Black Swan as masterworks of the same category, but defining that category is..well..squishy.

Reply
Eric Polyn says:

Adding to my own comment — One more facet worth noting is the ‘story within a story’. The story in Black Swan being Swan Lake of course, and in Bird Man it’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I could talk about these films all day 🙂

Last note – Lessons From The Screenplay has a great Youtube video comparing Black Swan and Whiplash.

Reply
Valerie Francis says:

I haven’t seen Bird Man yet … must add it to my list. 🙂 Yes, the Lessons From The Screenplay video is terrific. Agreed.

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Eric, I agree with the assessment of the editors here. It is both performance and status/tragic. The reason I put Status on top is because I once heard Shawn say it was a primary Status story. I think it could be seen either way.

Reply
Eric Polyn says:

Definitely add Birdman to your list, it’s fantastic. I hope I didn’t drop spoilers in my comment 🙁 Thanks!

Reply

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