This week, Valerie looks at the 1982 version of Blade Runner, in order to continue her study of forces of antagonism. This film was directed by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. It was based on the 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick.
Genre: Thriller – I saw this as a thriller but I know Kim considers it a crime story. I can totally see where she’s coming from on this one. It does seem like a police procedural. Honestly, there’s not a whole lot of story here to work with (it’s a guy hunting down 4 people to kill them) and the spine is a bit wishy-washy. So, although I’ve said thriller, I’m not married to that analysis.
Anne’s going to talk more about the genre in a bit, specifically with respect to the spine. And, as part of her study she looked closely at the beginning hook, middle build and ending payoff of Blade Runner, so I’ll hand it over to her to take us through the summary. Anne?
- Beginning Hook – When an undercover cop is murdered by a human-seeming android called a replicant, ex-cop Rick Deckard is called out of retirement to go back to his old profession of blade runner to find and kill the replicant. The replicant and its friends have escaped an off-world colony and come to earth for mysterious reasons. Deckard refuses the call at first, but when he learns that the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has created a new replicant, named Rachael, who doesn’t even know she’s not human, he becomes intrigued and takes the case.
- Middle Build – As the band of replicants execute their plan to find Tyrell and have their short lifespans increased, Deckard becomes more involved with Rachael while he follows leads to the escapees. One by one, either he or Rachael eliminate all but the replicants leader, Roy, but when Deckard’s boss reminds him that he’s also responsible for terminating Rachael, he must decide whether to do his job, or treat her as human and let her go. He promises to let her go.
- Ending Payoff – In a final confrontation, an injured Deckard is at the mercy of the physically superior Roy, but as Roy’s short lifespan winds down, he spares Deckard at the last moment, and dies. Deckard finds Rachael and together they escape to a better place in the north, to live out whatever lifespan Rachael has been allotted by her maker.
Kim: Crime-Noir? Even though he is hunting them down to kill them, it felt like the kind of crime story that follows both the investigator and the “criminal,” and the spectrum of life value for justice and injustice is slightly different.
The Principle – Valerie – Forces of Antagonism
I’m continuing my study of Forces of Antagonism this week. Recently, I heard Steven Pressfield say that, in Blade Runner, viewers had so much empathy for the villain that it almost ruined the story. That made me curious, so I wanted to study the film to see what was happening there. I think a good place to start is by looking at the premise of the film.
Replicants are genetically-engineered beings designed to work as slaves in colonies on other planets. After an uprising in which the Replicants rebelled, it became illegal for them to live on earth and special police officers, known as Blade Runners, were ordered to hunt them down and kill them.
Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, is a retired Blade Runner who’s been forced by his former boss to hunt down four Replicants. He refuses the call (saying he’s had enough of killing) only to accept it when his own life is threatened. Now, the threat to his life is very subtle. He’s told that if he’s not a cop, he’s “little people” and it’s only later in a voiceover that we find out what that means. Since we’re told that it’s a kill-or-be-killed situation, we don’t get a chance to experience the emotion of it, so we’re robbed of an opportunity to empathize with the protagonist.
I talked about this in the Silver Linings Playbook episode. Intellectually, we understand the situation Deckard is in, but we’re experiencing his life and death stakes at a distance. We’re not being drawn into the movie or into Deckard’s struggle. We’re very much on the outside and that’s a problem. A main character doesn’t have to be likable. We don’t have to sympathize with Deckard, but we must empathize with him. Readers (or viewers in this case) must develop an emotional connection to the hero, but unfortunately, we’re not given that opportunity.
We find out in the first 15 minutes of the story that the Replicants are super-human and have become so advanced that they’ve begun to develop their own emotions, notably hate, love, fear, anger, and envy. As a way of regulating this, the Tyrell Corporation has given them a 4-year life-span.
The main villain of the film is Roy, the character played by Rutger Hauer.
The villain needs to have a reason for what he does, but we don’t want to empathize with him. While he’s got to have a point, as we saw in Whiplash, that can be done very effectively without tipping the scales and creating empathy.
What’s happening in Blade Runner is that we’re getting a kind of double whammy. We have a hero we don’t empathize with and a villain we do empathize with. This ties in with one of the themes of the story, which I’ll get to in a minute.
So, how did the writers direct our emotional connection to the villain? And moreover, why?
To begin with, the very premise of the story creates a villain who’s an underdog. The underdog is a type of hero that is in a disadvantaged position; the odds are against him. Villains aren’t typically underdogs. They’re powerful—much more powerful than the hero. Roy is a sentient being who has been born into slavery. He has no rights, no hope of happiness, no recognition or expectation of fair treatment. If he was a simple robot or machine we wouldn’t think twice about that. We’re surrounded by machines that exist to make our lives easier, but since they’re not sentient beings we don’t give them a second thought. I mean, I don’t think about my dishwasher unless I’m using it. Roy, and the other Replicants are different. They have the capacity to love and fear.
The Replicants don’t realize that their lifespans are so short until Leon forces the information from Deckard. Given their creation dates, they have at most 14 months to live. As the leader of the group, Roy is trying to find a way to extend their lives and this is something we empathize with too. If, God forbid, we were told that we (or one of our loved ones) had 14 months to live, we’d move heaven and earth for more time.
Empathy is building slowly over the course of the film, but in the last couple of minutes it goes into overdrive. First, Roy saves Deckard. The villain saves the hero while exclaiming “kinship”! And the hero is Harrison Ford in the ‘80s. I mean, how can we not love someone who saves Han Solo and Indiana Jones?
But if that wasn’t enough, we then get Roy’s monologue followed by Deckard’s voiceover.
ROY: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attacked ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.
DECKARD: I don’t know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life. Anybody’s life. My life. All he’d wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where do I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die.
Now, if we layer on the visuals and of course Rutger Hauer’s performance, then our hearts simply break for Roy. We see him in his underwear with a nail through his hand which are both images reminiscent of Jesus in a loin cloth on the cross. So in other words, Deckard was trying to kill not only his savior, but our savior.
But there’s more…
The soundtrack is melodramatic (and award-winning by the way), it’s pouring rain and Roy is talking about tears being lost in the rain—his tears. He accepts his death and dies with dignity, on his own terms. He tells us he’s been living in fear, and we can see that in his face. He’s completely vulnerable in this moment and as he dies, the film moves to slow motion. And, in case we didn’t pick up on all the other signs, he’s also holding a white dove; a symbol of peace which he releases to the sky, to God.
The villain has become the victim, and the hero has become either the villain or a pawn, depending how want to look at it. Deckard’s pursuit of the Replicants seems monstrous and kinda cowardly. He’ll save his own neck rather than stand up for injustice.
The real villain then becomes Tyrell, but he’s a minor character who got killed off ages ago. We’re not thinking about him in this moment. We’re focused on two characters on screen; Roy and Deckard.
The placement of this speech is not an accident in my opinion. I remember listening to Seth Godin one time, talking about the impression that you leave people with. It’s pretty old wisdom that in life, in our business dealings and so on, we want to leave people with a positive feeling about us and about the service we’ve rendered. This is why stores wrap your purchases so nicely. It’s why the ending payoff of our stories is so important. It’s why all romances end with a happily-ever-after. It’s human nature to remember the last interaction we had with a person, or a story, or a business.
Roy’s speech takes up four of the last eight minutes of the movie. The filmmakers wanted to leave us with a feeling that Roy’s death was unnecessary and a waste. After this scene it’s just Deckard driving off into the sunset with Rachel. While we don’t really care about the love story (it’s such a minor part of the story as a whole) we’re glad that at least one Replicant gets a chance to live. We’re supposed to be happy for Deckard too, but I’m not sure why. That he has a chance at happiness maybe?
Why would Hampton Fancher, David Peoples and Ridley Scott want to leave us questioning who the villain is in this story? Well, if you think about it, we’ve seen this strategy before. Mary Shelley told this story over 200 years ago. Frankenstein is an excellent novel, and I highly recommend you read it. In fact, one of our colleagues here at Story Grid, Maya Rushing Walker, has written a Masterwork Guide of Frankenstein. You’ll want to read that too.
In Shelley’s novel, one of the main questions is, who is the monster? Is it Victor Frankenstein, or the being he created? That’s the same question being asked in Blade Runner. Who’s the villain here? Is it really the Replicants? Or is it the Blade Runners for hunting them down, or is it Tyrell and the people who work for him, for creating them in the first place? This is the question of theme I mentioned a few minutes ago.
I think Shelley pulled it off better, to be honest. Because in her novel, the question of evil is between the creator and the created. It’s brilliantly done. In Blade Runner, the creator—Tyrell—is so far in the background that the question of villainy is really diluted. Deckard isn’t the kingpin, he’s just an ex-cop that’s been caught up in all this.
The idea of a victim needing to kill another victim in order to survive also works perfectly fine. But to pull it off, you need a master villain. Suzanne Collins excuted it extremely well in The Hunger Games. President Snow is an active character. He’s the mastermind behind it all. Tyrell, by contrast, is a minor character. After the scene with Rachel, we kind of forget about him until Roy visits him later in the film.
Ok, so yes, we have empathy for the villain and we lack empathy for the hero and while that might have been intentional, I think the execution is still flawed.
Anne: The Story’s Spinal Scoliosis Still Didn’t Ruin It For Me
I saw this movie in 1982. I was in college. It was very cool. I remember being kind of wowed by the whole thing. Though I didn’t really grasp its nuances, a whole lot more of it has stuck with me over the years than, say, An Officer and a Gentleman, or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or even Sophie’s Choice. I retained the origami guy, the beautiful replicant woman, the micro-imprinted scale from the artificial snake, the discovery of clues in a single photograph. I remembered Pris and her black airbrushed eyes, and Roy Batty’s death scene. Of course I remembered the dark, polluted, rainy, crowded city and the giant pyramidal headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation.
Watching the film again almost four decades later, with Story Grid under my belt and, I hope, a little better than collegiate taste, I was able to see all sorts of problems with it. But—and this is important—I retained enough of it that as I rewatched, I could put little clues together from 38 years ago. I could see the careful setups and payoffs that supported the big philosophical ideas the film was trying to explore. And it was still pretty damn good.
I got into a Twitter conversation the other day about this film. It’s highly regarded, and makes lots of people’s lists of Top 100 films of all time. But what does that even mean? I’m not sure. It could well be that when my generation dies out it’ll fall off those lists because “you had to be there” to feel that it was a really cool movie.
But I think it’s more than that. It’s a story that asks large philosophical questions about what it means to be human.
It only partially succeeds. It’s another swing and a miss, like I found with Jupiter Ascending and Cloud Atlas. It’s a big idea story, built to explore philosophical questions about what constitutes life, and whether humans should try to create artificial life, and when artificial life becomes real life, and whether any of us are what we believe ourselves to be, and how all living things desire to go on living. It asks us to consider how different we are from the replicants. We all grow up knowing our expiration date, more or less, and like the replicants, we do some pretty crazy stuff to extend our lives.
But to make an entertaining movie about a deep philosophical theme, you have to dress it up in a good story. I’d like to look at where this one sags under the weight of its big ideas. I’d like to talk about how the story spine curves.
As a refresher, when we say the “story spine” here at Story Grid, we mean the core moments that identify the inciting incident, the turning point, the crisis, the climax, and the resolution of the three main acts, also known as the 15 Core Scenes or Core Moments.
Now, a truly well-constructed story will have 15 core moments that turn on the value at stake for the global genre. The culminating scene, which is the global crisis, should be the right kind of core event for that genre.
So, for instance, all 15 core scenes of an Action or Thriller story should turn on life and death, and each should bring the protagonist closer to or further from death. The core event is the hero at the mercy of the villain.
In a Crime story, the value at stake is justice and injustice, and each core scene should bring the protagonist and the criminal closer to or further from justice. The core event is when the perpetrator is brought to justice, or sometimes when the criminals escape and get poetic justice.
So what does Blade Runner give us?
We have an inciting crime by the villain in the opening scene. It looks like it could be a crime or a thriller. But we quickly learn that the cops already know who committed the murder. The bigger issue is that a band of replicants is at large on earth and need to be “retired,” or killed. Deckard must track them down. So instead of a murder investigation, we quickly shift to something like an Action/Duel/Hunted story.
A twisted and dark love subplot is launched as Deckard becomes fascinated with the replicant Rachael, but a Love subplot is standard in all sorts of Crime, Thriller and Action stories, so this isn’t necessarily a problem. The trouble is, the beginning hook seems to turn on Deckard’s discovery that she doesn’t know she’s a replicant, and the moral question of whether that means he’ll have to kill her too. It’s a bit muddy.
Meanwhile, the band of replicants are seeking justice for themselves. They’re ruthless, but they aren’t wholly unsympathetic characters. They’re the victims of a heinous crime at the hands of the Tyrell Corporation: they were made conscious and powerful, but also aware of their extremely limited lifespans. We don’t love them, but we certainly can’t argue with their clear motivation. They just want to live. They’re carrying out what almost feels like a caper, going up against the corporate bad guy who done them wrong.
So by the end of the beginning hook, we’re no longer sure what kind of story we’re following.
In the Middle Build, Deckard becomes more involved with Rachael, and at the same time his investigation leads him him to one of the replicants, whom he kills. Rachael saves him from murder at the hands of another replicant by killing that one. Whether to protect her or kill her is the Deckard’s crisis of the middle build, which seems to me like a crisis belonging to the dark Love story, and to Deckard’s internal Worldview or Morality plot. His promise to let her go free is the resolution, and that too belongs to Deckard’s internal arc. Meanwhile, Deckard kills the second to the last replicant in an exciting fight scene that puts us back in Action or Thriller territory. The Crime story is long gone.
The Ending Payoff is the final confrontation. An injured Deckard is at the mercy of the physically superior Roy, which cements the Action or Thriller genre—it’s as straightforward a hero at the mercy of the villain scene as you’ll find anywhere. But as Roy’s short lifespan winds down, he spares Deckard at the last moment, and dies. There is no decision on Deckard’s part, no sudden access to his inmost gift—the crisis (whether to let Deckard live or kill him while he can) belongs to Roy, who is the villain but also sort of a victim, and not to the putative protagonist.
Then, in a final resolution from the Love story, Deckard finds Rachael and together they escape to a better place in the north, to live out whatever lifespan Rachael has been allotted by her maker.
My conclusion is that the story works on the strength of its fascinating ideas, brilliant visuals, and some great Action and Thriller scenes, but its spine is kinked and doesn’t run straight through. It’s too intelligent and ambitious to be terrible—there are reasons why it’s still highly regarded—but it bears the marks of mixed and unclear vision on the screenwriters’ and director’s part. It is worth watching and studying, because the big ideas in it are subtly signaled, well set up and paid off, and ultimately clear, but those elegant big ideas are clothed in a a bit of a mish-mash of genres that isn’t quite as tailored as we might wish.
Kim– A Cautionary Tale in Creating Subtext
I had never seen Blade Runner before Valerie announced we’d be covering it for the podcast, but I was excited. I have recently pinpointed that I have a fixation with robot/android/AI stories because of the questions they raise about life and meaning and belonging. But with this particular story, I was sorely disappointed.
Granted this is an older film, but we’ve studied many older films—Double-Indemnity, Rear Window, True Grit, Yojimbo—which took a little getting used to, but nevertheless completely sucked me in.
This did not happen with Blade Runner.
The problems started from the get-go. The initial conventions were haphazardly introduced and made for unclear/unmet expectations.
- Conventions are the Characters, Setting, Means of turning plot (creates opportunity for conflict and change) that establish the life values of your chosen genre and create expectations
- Obligatory Scenes are the key moments of change—i.e. events, revelations, decisions—that turn those life values and pay off our expectations.
As I’ve been examining beginnings this season, I’ve begun to notice the specific ways that writers introduce conventions and establish life values. And how we as an audience are primed to pick up on those cues.
We WANT to have a meaningful experience so we’re looking for meaning in what is presented. This is the fundamental basis for stories: subconscious awareness to draw meaning from patterns and is wired in our DNA for survival.
So in Blade Runner, I was picking up on cues but then those cues were not consistent. So I was confused, and annoyed, and the larger change over the course of the story wasn’t as meaningful.
In the show notes you’ll find my conventions breakdown of the opening sequence. I’m just going to touch a few elements here to make my case of why this opening doesn’t work for me.
[Opening scroll] – In the future there are advanced robots virtually identical to humans used for slave labor. They revolt and are declared illegal on earth, hunted and killed by special police squads: blade runners. Not human so it’s not an execution.
Early in the 21st Century, THE TYRELL CORPORATION advanced robot evolution into the NEXUS phase – a being virtually identical to a human – known as a Replicant. The NEXUS 6 Replicants were superior in strength and agility, and at least equal in intelligence, to the genetic engineers who created them. Replicants were used Off-World as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets. After a bloody mutiny by a NEXUS 6 combat team in an Off-World colony, Replicants were declared illegal on earth – under penalty of death. Special police squads – BLADE RUNNER UNITS – had orders to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
- Tyrell Corporation
- Genetic engineers
- Nexus-6 combat team
- Special police squad / Blade runner
- Early 21st Century
Means of turning the plot
- Replicants are treated as slave labor and for hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets
- Mutiny leads to replicants being declared illegal on earth
- Blade runners’ orders are to shoot to kill, upon detection, any trespassing Replicant
- This was not called execution. It was called retirement.
What expectations does this set up: A blade runner and a replicant are going to face off …
Content – Life/Death, Power/Impotence, Justice/Injustice
Reality – Fantasy/Science-Fiction
To Valerie’s point, we are already feeling empathy for the replicants. They are advanced and nearly equal to humans in every way, and yet they are being used for slave labor and hazardous missions. They stage a mutiny so we know they have a will of their own and likely are tired of being treated unfairly. They’re declared illegal and hunted down and killed. Blade runners sound like the unfeeling robots at this point.
[Scene 1] – Leon is interviewed by Holden, feels cornered so he shoots Holden
Summary: Leon Kowalski is the next new employee at Tyrell Corporation to be interviewed by Holden … he’s been there six days. Holden administers a kind of lie detector test where he asks questions and then watches the retina of the eye for signals. Holden says, “It’s a test designed to evoke an emotional response.” Holden asks Leon about a hypothetical helpless tortoise in the desert and then about his mother. Leon shoots him under the table, then stands and shoots him again.
- Female voice over intercom
- Leon Kowalski, new employee
- Holden, interviewer
- Los Angeles, November 2019 (the future)
- Terrifying skyline with flames, etc
- Giant building/pyramid
- Office cubicle
- Seated across desk
- Chairs say Tyrell on them
Means of plot
- Scene type “Called into the boss’s office”
Scene change: Concealed to Exposed, Kowalski feels cornered so he shoots the interviewer.
Expectations advanced: Kowalski is a replicant, going to be on the run, a blade runner is going to have to chase him down.
Annoying things: Unclear if Holden is a blade runner or an employee of Tyrell. Also, why didn’t anyone check him for a weapon? Why is there no security during the test? If the intent/hope is to detect a replicant and then “retire” them, why would they be so casual about everything? Was it to create a shock when Leon suddenly shoots Holden? But then later, when we learn that Holden is a blade runner, a good one, it just feels kind of … lame. The elite police squad feels more like a lab tech.
[Scene 2] Deckard, an ex-blade runner, is arrested and taken into custody on Captain Bryant’s authority.
Voice over from Deckard: They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.
Deckard sits down to eat at an open-air street restaurant. Cops approach and speak to Deckard in a foreign language. Deckard has the restaurant owner translate.
Owner: He say you under arrest, Mr. Deckard.
Deckard: Tell them they got the wrong guy.
Owner: He say you blade runner.
Deckard: I’m eating.
Cop: Captain Bryant [foreign language]
Deckard: Captain Bryant, huh?
Deckard leaves with cops. In voiceover, he tells us he didn’t need a translator, he just didn’t want to make it easy for them.
- City goers
- Character (strength of will, motives, moral code, behavior) – Voiceover is kind of intense, but behavior is of a nonchalant guy, doesn’t seem to take things too seriously, goes with the flow.
- Thought – seems to not be too proud of the fact that he was a blade runner
- Fortune (external circumstances) – “ex-cop, ex-blade runner, ex-killer”, divorced, wife thought he was a cold fish
- Restaurant owner
- Captain Bryant (offstage)
- Crowded city street
- Open air food stand
- Flying cop car
- We learn he is an ex-blade runner … he doesn’t seem proud of that. We don’t know if he quit or was fired?
Scene Change: Independent to In Custody
Expectations Advanced: Similar to Leon, a “Called into the boss’s office” scene, Bryant needs him for something, does this have to do with Leon?
Annoying things: There is an advertisement announcing that there are shuttles to other worlds where you can join a colony and start over … and yet that’s supposedly where replicants are. Off-world. So isn’t unsafe to leave earth and be out among replicants or not? Feels inconsistent with the severity of the opening text.
[Scene 3] Captain Bryant tells Deckard he needs him back to hunt down four replicants that killed a bunch of people and put Holden in the hospital. Deckard initially refuses but then complies.
Deckard is taken to police station, goes into Bryant’s office.
Byrant: Hiya Deck.
Bryant: You wouldn’t have come if I’d just asked ya. Sit down pal … ah come on don’t be an asshole Deckard. I’ve got four skin jobs walking the streets.
Voiceover: Skin jobs. That was Bryant called Replicants.
Bryant: They jumped a shuttle off-world. Killed the crew and passengers. They found the shuttle drifting off the coast two weeks ago, so we know they’re around.
Byrant: No it’s not embarrassing. Cuz no one’s gonna find out they’re down here. Cuz you’re going to spot ‘em and air ‘em out.
Deckard: I don’t work here anymore. Give it to Holden. He’s good.
Bryant: I did. He can breathe okay as long as nobody unplugs him. He’s not good enough. Not as good as you. I need ya Deck. This is a bad one. The worst yet. I need the old Blade Runner. I need your magic.
Deckard: I was quit when I come in here, Bryant. I’m twice as quit now.
Bryant: Stop right where you are. Do you know the score, pal? If you’re not cop, you’re little people.
Deckard: No choice huh?
Bryant: No choice, pal.
- Captain Bryant
- Other Cops
- Former Train Station now Police Station
- Bryant’s office
- Across the desk
- Surrounded by cops who brought him
- Holden is alive but maybe not for long
- There’s more than one replicant on the loose — four in total, they’re most advanced type, already killed 23 people.
Scene Change: Rebellious to Compliant
Expectations Advanced: he’s going to hunt down Leon … this will likely come to a violent end.
Annoying Things: I don’t find Deckard’s motivation to go back to work for Bryant believable enough. There is nothing to show the audience that this threat has any weight to it. We haven’t seen the might of the elite police squad in action. We saw Holden operating solo as an interviewer and get shot. We saw Decker shrug off the cops who came to arrest him, and even Bryant’s character is goofy. Now we can presume there is a subtextual threat when Bryant says “If you’re not a cop, you’re little people”, but we don’t really feel it. We don’t know what it means—it’s VAGUE.
Also, Decker had referred to himself as an ex-killer … which seems to tell us he doesn’t want to kill anymore.
Decker comments in voiceover that his former boss, Captain Bryant, is a bigot because he’s using the term skinjob to refer to replicants. This seems to tell us he does not agree with him, and since he doesn’t want to kill replicants anymore, we presume he already has had a moral change of heart of some kind. Is this what led to his divorce?
These are the questions being raised for me as a viewer …
Also this is acting at the set up for Deckard’s transformation (Worldview-Education/Maturation I think, but it’s not executed tightly so it’s unclear). It’s too VAGUE.
But then as the story progresses, Deckard makes reference to the way he’s beginning to feel about replicants … empathy, compassion, etc. When he find they have memories and photographs.
But … I thought he already was having these kinds of inklings about their humanness? But then he still shoots them no problem.
The unclear establishment of Decker’s character plus the unclear development and inconsistencies are confusing and, as a viewer, I’m frustrated. Decker’s initial THOUGHT LIFE VALUE wasn’t clear, and so as his THOUGHT began to change over the course of the story spine, it wasn’t compelling. It’s odd to me that in a film with such overt voiceover that the character’s transformation was still so unclear. Again, I think this is another reason why our empathy resides with the antagonists on this one.
- We need our life values to be CLEAR. The way to communicate clear life values is by being specific, not vague.
- And vague is meaningless storytelling. Specific is meaningful.
- Specific does not necessarily mean “on the nose” or obvious.
- Specific simply is the opposite of vague. Show us something clear, and keep being clear as things change, and we will feel the meaning.
I think sometimes we worry that being too specific, too forthright, will make something “on the nose” so we try to be coy, thinking it’s subtext. Anyone else? Just me?
But this is a trap.
Subtext isn’t simply unstated. It’s not guessing. It’s something that is known without having to be stated. But it’s still essential that the right information is conveyed in order for the information to be known.
This is a great way to introduce your character, setting, and means … with subtext. The reader gets to experience the specific elements and draw larger conclusions from them. Create a sequence that allows us to infer meaning. A meaningful pattern. This is show not tell.
I came across several articles online in my research that helped spell out some specific tactics you can use. Applying these subtext tactics specifically to your conventions is a great way to craft a strong beginning to your story.
Leslie – POV/Narrative Device
If you’ve listened to our recent episodes, you know this season I’m focusing on POV and narrative device, which answers the question, how do I deliver my story to the reader?
POV is what we’re familiar with from grade school. It tells you whether your story is first person, third person limited, omniscient, etc., and whether it’s written in past or present tense. The narrative device or situation gives you the you who is conveying the story, to whom, when and where, in what form, and why.
Getting clarity on the narrative device choice has been transformative for my clients because it provides useful constraints that limit the infinite choices you have to make in the story. When you understand why someone is sharing a story to whom and under what circumstances, the question of which details you should and shouldn’t include become clearer. I go into this in depth in my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV, which can be can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.
What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?
This question is the focus of my work this week. My thoughts are still coming together, and I’m piggybacking on what my fellow Roundtablers are talking about here, but through the lens of POV and narrative device. Please keep in mind my musings here are very much the realm of the working hypothesis.
Here’s the premise as I see it: A reluctant former cop and retired blade runner has to take a job killing replicants (genetically engineered beings designed to be more human than human) to save his own life in a dystopian futuristic-noir version of Los Angeles. So that’s the character with a problem in a specific setting.
The life values suggest Blade Runner is a Thriller, with Deckard as both hero and victim. Rachel becomes another victim when Deckard is told to kill her, and we begin to see the four replicants in this way too. You can tell from Valerie’s analysis that the villain is fairly complicated here.
As a straight Thriller, there isn’t much of a story and it isn’t that interesting. You have a bounty hunter who is slightly outmatched by the villain being chased. In a story like that, the hero should express their individual gift to outwit and overpower the villain. But this isn’t a straight Thriller. The putative villain, Roy, continues to overpower Deckard. In the end, Roy could kill Deckard but chooses not to, as if proving he is more human than Deckard, who would have killed Roy, despite his misgivings.
The story sets us up to believe Roy is the primary villain of the Thriller—we get plenty of details about why humans should be afraid of him. He’s an advanced model, and much stronger than humans. Tyrell appears to be the external antagonist of Deckard’s internal struggle. Without Tyrell’s need to put down the replicants, Deckard faces no dilemma. He can continue life as he’s been living, avoiding facing the moral complexity of the job he had been doing.
In the novel, Deckard’s dilemma hasn’t happened yet–he is still employed as a blade runner, but in the film Deckard has serious misgivings about what he’s doing (so much so that he gave up his former career in which he gained some renown). He chooses to kill to save his own life. This situation is repeated multiple times within the film from different points of view. It’s telegraphed in the opening scene when Leon kills the examiner rather than be found out as a replicant on Earth. But we don’t see it that way in this moment. At the end of the story, only Roy is willing to die rather than continue killing. This film definitely has some weak elements as my fellow Roundtablers have explained, but despite the problems, the deeper I look, the more interesting the story becomes—we’re left with questions about what it is to be human.
Blade Runner, like Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, explores identity and what it means to be human. (In the novel, Deckard’s doubts about the morality of retiring human-like androids don’t arise until after the story begins, after he’s met Rachel and believes that some humans may have been mistakenly killed.)
The problem to me is that the real conflict in this story and what makes it interesting is the internal dilemma, which is hard to dramatize in a film. For the dilemma to be real, we need to be afraid of Leon and Roy and the other replicants in the beginning, but come to see them differently. The problem of ambiguous heroes and villains appears to be what the story is trying to pull off. To ratchet up Deckard’s dilemma, the villain has to evoke sympathy and at certain points we have to be disgusted with Deckard. That seems to be the source of the problems in the story spine.
What’s the controlling idea? Something along the lines of this: Life and meaning are preserved when we allow a challenge to enlighten us to a broader understanding. That’s not that specific, but hopefully you can see where I’m going with this. My suggestion is that life can’t exist without meaning. Roy’s sacrifice at the end allows Deckard to find meaning, and Deckard is not going to waste the opportunity.
What’s the POV?
The voiceover suggests this is first person. The novel employs editorial omniscient, with a narrator that editorializes quite a bit, expressing opinions about society. To me, it’s not as effective as first person to tell this story, but the stories in the book and the film are different enough that different POVs can make sense.
What’s the narrative device?
Who? Deckard is telling the story.
To whom? I suspect he’s addressing people like himself who face the same dilemma. The obvious solution is to kill, preserve your own life, but if someone makes a sacrifice, we can wake up and disengage from a corrupt system to grasp what meaning we can.
When? After the events depicted (more than four years after Rachel was created). Deckard has gained significant perspective.
In what form (by implication)? Verbal? There’s nothing to indicate it’s written or in some other form. Closer inspection might reveal more.
Why? At first I thought this seemed like a justification or explanation of Deckard’s choice(s), shifting blame to society for whitewashing the killing of replicants. But time and reflection leads me to believe Deckard wants to encourage other people to take advantage of opportunities to quit engaging in the kill or be killed system.
How well does it work?
I think the challenges with this film are more to do with the genre and structure than the narrative device. The narrative device works works pretty well because the larger issues of identity are echoed in Deckard’s individual expression. The voiceover feels a little clunky, but I got used to it. I think we need Deckard’s human perspective to make this story work.
The portion of the novel I read was on the nose. A character outside the story tells us how and what to think about the situation. I like the way the film allows us to reach our own conclusion. It would have been interesting to see the novel written in first person from Deckard’s point of view.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. What have we learned this week?
Kim: To craft a killer beginning, you need to introduce your conventions (characters, setting, and means of plot) with clarity and specificity so they can establish opening life values the reader can FEEL. Do not be vague and coy. Use the sequencing of the information you present to convey meaning to the reader, but do it intentionally so it comes through clear. Otherwise your reader will be frustrated and not likely to continue into the middle of your story.
Anne: I’ve been hammering away at the draft of my Masterwork Experiment story, and yesterday morning I finally felt like I had enough material written to take a run at defining the spine. (Yes, I am more of a pantser than a plotter.) Sure enough, the scenes weren’t all turning on the global genre. It leaped out at me, and now I know what I need to fix.
The same tool helped me see what wasn’t quite working about Blade Runner. So my advice—which I’ve mentioned before—is this: practice stripping down your own work and other stories you consume to the statement of the 15 core scenes. Get comfortable passing over a lot of the cool shit in your story, which is arms and legs and fingers and toes, and just naming the spine. The 15 core scenes that turn on the values at stake of your global genre it is one of the very best diagnostic tools we have. It takes practice, but that practice will pay off in a big way.
Leslie: My takeaway is very personal this week. When I don’t enjoy a story but can’t stop thinking about it after it’s over, I need to keep looking at it to figure out what’s getting tweaked. And working the objective analysis helps me see what’s happening beneath the surface. I didn’t enjoy Blade Runner, but I’m getting a lot out of thinking about it.
Valerie: Boy, I’ve gotta say, the key thing that’s sticking with me this week is the need to study Masterworks. It’s one thing to know what the principles of storytelling are and how they work, but we also need to understand when and why to use them. I keep saying we must have empathy for the hero, and that’s true. I stand by that. But as storytellers, we can always push the boundaries, right? If we want to tell a story that explores the question of who is the hero and who is the villain, then we need to look at how other writers have tackled that issue. Frankenstein works so well because we empathize with both the creator and the created. We can see both of their points of view equally and we’re really torn to say which of them is doing the right thing. It raises significant moral questions which is why we’re still talking about it 200 years later.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Story Grid Guild member, Fred Rege. Fred writes:
With respect to the Story Grid Spreadsheet, does a scene’s value shift relate to the overall scene or just to the turning point complication? For example, imagine a scene in which a character kills his rich uncle, then inherits millions of dollars. From the character’s perspective, he has gone from poor to wealthy; that’s his most obvious scene-level shift. But if one looks at the scene from the turning point’s perspective, the scene turns when the uncle was killed – that is life to death. So from a Story Grid perspective, what’s the value shift? This is important; globally, I’d want to inspect the valences and make sure I’m not repeating things. As well, I want the story spine scenes to turn on the global value at stake.
Valerie : Fred, thanks so much for your question. Value shift is the Story Grid principle I had the most trouble understanding and so as a result, I’ve really studied into it.
The issue you’re having here, I think, is about how the 5 Commandments of Storytelling work with the Units of Story. If you recall, each of the 5 Commandments exists in each Unit of Story, and this can be a really confusing—and overwhelming—idea. But, the more stories you study, the more sense it makes.
On the Spreadsheet, you’re tracking the value shift for each individual scene as it relates to the global story. Now, it’s entirely possible to have multiple values shifting in a scene. In fact, in well-written stories, it’s almost a guarantee that that’ll be happening, and that you’ll be able to analyze a scene from each of the character’s points of view. But the Spreadsheet is designed to track the main storyline.
The turning point is an unexpected event that the character doesn’t immediately know how to react to. It therefore throws him into crisis (which is some form of “what do I do now?”) and the choice he makes (including the action he takes) is the climax. It’s the turning point that shifts the value for a unit of story. The turning point isn’t itself a value shift; it creates a value shift.
In your example, it sounds to me like you’re mixing two different units of story, and two different point of view analysis. The uncle’s death occurs at the scene level. Something happens that the nephew isn’t expecting, and that throws him into crisis. The crisis question then is, does he kill his uncle or not? The climactic action is that he kills his uncle. If the nephew is your protagonist, then on the Spreadsheet you analyze the scene from his perspective and track his value shift. You wouldn’t track the uncle’s value shift of life to death. What the nephew’s shift will be depends on your story and I don’t have enough information from your example to offer any suggestions.
This is the kind of thing that Story Grid Certified Editors help writers with during developmental editing calls. When we work with clients we’re diving deeply into their stories and so have all the information we need to help with this kind of detailed and specific question.
Keep in mind, that when the nephew kills his uncle, he doesn’t also become a millionaire. By that I mean that the inheritance is dramatized in a later scene. So the uncle’s death gives rise to the possibility of getting the money later in the story. Therefore, if poor to rich is a value shift you believe needs to be tracked for your global story, it would be tracked in another scene.
I hope that helps.
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.
Join us next time when Anne will analyze the short story “Pilgrims” by Elizabeth Gilbert for her second dive into what makes a short story tick. Why not read it during the week, and follow along with us?