This week, Kim looks at Center Stage, in order to study Core Events. This 2000 film was directed by Nicholas Hytner from a screenplay by Carol Heikkinen.
This is a mini plot story and I struggled to put the acts into succinct five commandment statements so I’m going to narrow the focus on Jody. Valerie will go into more detail in her section.
- Beginning Hook – Ballet dancer Jody wins her audition into the American Ballet Academy with hopes of making into the Company with their performance in the end of the year workshop. But when she is called into the director’s office and told she doesn’t have what it takes, Jody must decide whether to give up or keep going. She keeps going.
- Middle Build – Jody takes a break from ballet and visits a Broadway dance studio where she encounters the world-famous ballet dancer Cooper Nielson. They have a one night stand. But when the roles for the Spring Workshop are announced, Jody is cast as the lead in Cooper Nielson’s experimental debut and she must decide if she will dance through the awkwardness or give up. She keeps going.
- Ending Payoff – The day of the workshop arrives, but when Jody’s dance partner is injured and Cooper decides he will dance in his place, Jody must decide whether to risk looking like an amateur or give up. She overcomes her nerves and dances her heart out, receiving a standing ovation. She opts not to join ABC and instead becomes a principal in Cooper’s new ballet company.
Genre: Performance-Dance with Status-Sentimental
Kim – Core Event of Performance and Status Genres
I am studying Core Events this season, which is the big moment of change that pays off each genre. It is the ultimate payoff of reader expectations that have been set up and built up over the course of the story and where the reader experiences the height of the all-important Core Emotion, which is the experience they are most hoping for when they read that genre. In a more technical way, the Core Event is the moment when the global life values are most at stake, meaning the protagonist has the most to gain and the most to lose.
The main reason I picked Center Stage this week is because of the clear Core Event moments for both the Performance and Status genre and, because it is a mini-plot, we get to experience these moments for multiple characters.
And sometimes these genres can be tricky to tell apart. They both stem from the Esteem tank so have the same Core Need at stake, but express it through different Core Values, and evoke different Core Emotions in the audience.
So let’s look a little closer to see the distinctions between the Performance genre and the Status genre.
In the Performance genre, the fundamental question is will the protagonist do what is necessary to pursue and fully express their unique gift despite the difficulties (physical, mental, and emotional)?
Performance stories are about the outward expression of our internal gifts and our need for approval. Each person has an extraordinary internal gift, but not everyone is willing to do what it takes to express it unconditionally. This takes great effort. Some may only express it if they know it will be well-received and respected. Others refuse to express it for fear of rejection, even if it would be well-received. Seeing others exert this effort in the face of challenges and overcome them to ultimately express their inner gift, fills us with a sense of triumph.
So, why is the Big Performance scene the Core Event for a Performance story?
This is the moment when the protagonist must display their gift for all to see, risking failure and shame. The stakes of respect and shame are at their highest because of who is watching—the audience of that performance is—and what their respect means to the protagonist. Will the protagonist be able to handle the pressure? Will they choose to express their gift in the face of risk? Will they persist in the face of adversity? Their actions in this big fight/big game/big recital show us the answer.
In the end, it’s not how well they do but the fact that they are willing to take the risk. When they do take the risk, give it their all, and then perform at their highest potential, the emotion that evokes in us is hard to beat.
The universal takeaway (Big Meta Why) of a Performance story is: We gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally. But shame results when we hold our gifts back for fear of criticism and/or reprisal.
Performance stories show us that the unconditional expression of our unique gift—that is, its full expression and display, freed from personal shame (and not dependent on respect from others)—is the key to respect and personal fulfillment. We must be willing to show our true selves and what we are truly capable of, no matter what.
In the Status Performance genre, the fundamental question is will the protagonist be able to rise in social standing and achieve their personal definition of success?
Status stories are the internal expression of our external definitions of success, which is highly subjective to the individual. The dilemma of the Status protagonist comes down to being at odds with their moral code. Each subgenre of Status create a specific prescriptive or cautionary tale that demonstrates an opportunity to rise or a challenge to overcome. The question then becomes, what are we willing to do in order to rise or overcome? How far will we go? Are we willing to do whatever it takes?
Will they stay aligned with their moral code and gain success? This positive prescriptive outcome occurs when the protagonist has a present and adequate mentor to guide them. The mentor enables them to find a reasonable definition of success (one they can achieve without abandoning their moral code), and a strong enough will to pursue it. We see this in the subgenres of Sentimental and Admiration.
Or, will they abandon their moral code and fail? This negative cautionary outcome occurs when the protagonist’s mentor is absent or present but flawed. This leads to an unreasonable definition of success (one they cannot achieve without abandoning their moral code). This causes them to give up and not try, try and fail, or succeed but at the cost of their moral code. We see this in the subgenres of Pathetic and Tragic.
So, why is the ‘Choice of the protagonist to do what’s necessary to attain higher status or reject the world they strived to join’ scene the Core Event for a Status story?
The protagonist must decide what they are willing to do to gain their definition of success. Depending on the specifics of the story (and the subgenre), this could mean exerting their will, changing their definition of success, or abandoning their moral code (selling out). This defining action takes place in the Core Event scene. Because Status stories are an internal genre, the nature of this core event will be flavored by the external genre it’s paired with. A Status story paired with Performance will be different than a Status story paired with Crime.
The universal takeaway (Big Meta Why) of a Status story is: Success results when a person is true to their values whether or not it leads to social betterment, but failure results when a person sells out their values for unworthy goals.
Status stories show us that we are the sum of our choices, but also that our choices are greatly dictated by the external circumstances we face—opportunities, challenges, and the presence (or absence) of an adequate mentor. It is impossible to be successful on our own—we are fundamentally dependent on others. These stories are a call to find a strong mentor and heed their advice, as well as a call to be a strong mentor to others—show up and share your expertise. It could mean the difference between a sentimental or tragic ending.
You can see what these genres pair so well together, because Status is baked into Performance. This isn’t to say you can’t pair with another internal genre, but there’s likely going to still be some Status nuance.
So let’s look at a few Core Events moments in Center Stage that demonstrate these genre principles.
Performance Core Event: Eva Declares Her Unconditional Devotion to Her Gift [01:21:36 – 01:23:04] – Eva makes the decision to dance for herself, regardless of what happens, and to keep dancing long after the workshop. Maureen asks Eva to dance in her place. Eva dances magnificently.
Status Core Event: Eva Stick Close to Her Moral Code And Gains The Success She Wanted [01:45:53 – 01:46:55] – Eva is scolded for dancing in Maureen’s place without telling anyone. She apologizes, but then takes it back because that dance was the best time of her life. She is offered a place in the company and accepts.
Performance & Status Core Event: Maureen Follows Her Moral Code and Denounces Ballet As Her True Gift, Leaves Behind The World She Sought To Join [01:28:07 – 01:30:07] – Maureen asks Eva to dance in her place. She tells her mother that she doesn’t want to be a ballerina because it makes her unhappy and sick. She wants to find something that she loves, not just something she happens to do well.
Performance Core Event: Jody Struggles to Unconditionally Give Her Gift, But Overcomes [01:24:50 – 01:25:50] – Jody is nervous the night before the performance and Cooper pressures her about hitting the fouettes at the end, because he wants everything to be perfect. Charlie tells her to just dance it how she feels it. When the time comes, she dances with all her attitude and nails it, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd.
Status Core Event: Jody Discovers And Chooses A Better Definition of Success That Truly Honors Her Gift [01:46:57 – 01:49:05] – Cooper tells her the ballet was a success and his benefactor is going to fund his company. He asks Jody to be in his company, as his star, and says they’ll be great together. Then it’s Jody’s turn to meet with Jonathan to learn if she has earned a spot at ABC. But she asks Jonathan not to say anything because she knows that either way the best dancer she can be is as a principle in Cooper Nielson’s new company.
When you look at each of these moments, it’s clear to see how and why they payoff everything that came before for each character
Eva – fear of success in the BH, struggle with authority in the MB
Maureen – guaranteed success in BH, struggle with mental and physical health in MB
Jody – struggle with technique in BH, recognized for unique style in MB
When you recognize the purpose and power of the Core Event moment, you can double down on intention in every other moment of your story, executing your craft at the highest level.
Valerie – 3-Act Structure with Multi-Protagonist Stories
This week I’m continuing my study of the 3-Act story structure. Shawn has recently expanded on his concepts of how the beginning, middle and end of a story works, and I’ve got a beat all about the beginning, middle and end coming out later this year. The best way to understand a story principle, in my opinion, is this: study the principle in theory, apply that theory to as many different stories as possible, and then use the principle in your own work.
Reading the various Story Grid books and articles, and listening to the podcasts is the way you understand a principle in theory. What I’m trying to do here on the show is demonstrate how I apply these principles to a story so that you have a model to follow. You’ll still need to do your own study, but hopefully this will give you a jumping-off point.
Ok, so with that said, the main protagonist in Center Stage is Jody, so that’s who I’ll be focusing on. We get a lot of questions here at Story Grid about stories with multiple protagonists; love stories that are written from both lovers’ points of view is a common example. There’s certainly no problem in having more than one protagonist, even in an arch plot story. If this is the approach you’re taking in your novel, the trick to it is to create a hierarchy. The storyline for one of the characters will take priority. If you remember the Hidden Figures episode we did, you’ll recall that Catherine was the main protagonist, Dorothy was second in the hierarchy and Mary was third. In Center Stage, as I said, Jody is the main protagonist so her story will create the main throughline for the film. Eva’s story, and Maureen’s story, are secondary plotlines.
Generally speaking, the beginning hook is all about establishing the protagonist in her ordinary world, the middle build is when the hero crosses into the extraordinary world and the ending payoff is when the protagonist creates a new normal for herself. So, how does this shake out in Center Stage?
Interestingly, Jody crosses into her extraordinary world immediately. By the end of the opening credits, she’s at the ballet school. For the past two weeks I’ve been discussing the breakdown of middle build one and middle build two. The things I said about middle build one could be applied to the beginning hook of this story; it kinda is the calm before the storm in Jody’s life. So, at first blush, this simple story can seem pretty complicated. Not to worry; this is one place where switching our focus from the micro view to the macro view, can help us make sense of what’s going on.
Honestly, I think having Jody enter the extraordinary world of the ballet academy immediately was a smart storytelling choice in this case because (1) there are multiple storylines to follow, (2) Jody’s particular storyline isn’t all that deep and (3) it’s a dance performance story so the filmmakers need to create time for the dancing because that’s part of what viewers are paying their money for (and there’s a lot of incredible dancing here!).
One note about multiple-protagonist stories: often the storylines are diluted. Because there are so many stories to tell, there isn’t time to dive deeply into any of them. In Center Stage, Maureen’s story is third in the hierarchy so there isn’t time to fully explore it. But it’s fertile ground for storytelling! Black Swan is Maureen’s story fully examined.
Films generally have a two-hour limit. Novels are generally in that 80-100,000 word count. Word counts aren’t as big a deal in today’s publishing industry because so many books are digital or print on demand. However from a craft perspective, the longer the book, the harder it is to maintain a reader’s attention, and the greater the danger that the middle build will sag. And multiple storylines, especially in a novel, add an extra layer of storytelling difficulty. In a film, viewers spend minutes on each storyline. For example, if we don’t like Eva’s story, we only have to sit through a couple of minutes before Jody’s story kicks back in again. In novels, depending on a person’s reading speed and time they have to spend reading, it can be weeks before they get back to the story they’re most interested in. As writers then, we run the risk of having our readers put our book down and not picking it back up.
Choosing to use a single protagonist over multiple protagonists isn’t a better or worse approach. Like all the other principles of storytelling, there are advantages and disadvantages to each option. As writers, what we want to do is decide on the kind of story we want to tell, and then figure out which of the tools in the writer’s toolbox will help us tell it best.
In terms of story structure, the beginning hook of Center Stage is establishing Jody’s ordinary world within the dance school (it also establishes Eva’s and Maureen’s ordinary worlds within the dance school). When we realize that, all the pieces start to fall into place. In her ordinary world, Jody is a sub-standard dancer in a highly disciplined and regimented academy.
In the middle build, Jody rediscovers a love of dance. The extraordinary world then, is dance without hard-and-fast rules. It’s life outside the confines of the academy.
Middle Build One is the calm before the storm. The protagonist is trying to navigate this strange new world the best she can using the knowledge, skills, tools, beliefs and perspectives that she brought with her from her ordinary world.
Jody takes a class at the Broadway Dance Center and has a blast. She encounters the shapeshifting antagonist of her storyline (Cooper) and he catches a glimpse of her gift for dance. Note that Jonathan is a global antagonist, but each of the storylines has a secondary antagonist. Cooper is the antagonist for Jody’s story, Eva is her own worst enemy so the antagonist is primarily internal, and with Maureen, her mother is the antagonist.
The turning point of middle build one is when the protagonist tries to outmaneuver the antagonist, and in Center Stage, this plays out in a love story. Jody doesn’t understand that the tryst with Cooper was a one-off and so she attempts to continue the relationship with him. He quickly makes it clear that it was a one-night-stand which means that Jody’s crisis is whether she’ll continue to dance in his number, or quit. She decides to channel her anger into her craft and returns to rehearsal. Of course, she blows everyone away with the emotion and energy she brings to her performance.
The midpoint shift, which is also called the midpoint climax or the point of no return, marks the hero’s fall into chaos.
The second part of the middle build is when the protagonist descends into chaos. And when the protagonist is in chaos, the whole story and everyone in it is in chaos. Because there are multiple protagonists, the chaos phase is fairly shallow – for all three characters. In terms of Jody’s story, the chaos phase begins when Eric sprains his ankle and Cooper has to dance his part with Jody and Charlie. It passes fairly quickly though because the filmmakers had to dramatize the chaos in Maureen’s life (she wishes she’d been the one to sprain her ankle) and then get on to the big performance – the core event – that we’ve all been waiting for.
Much of the ending payoff plays out in the performance. The dance Cooper choreographs is a re-enactment of the relationship he had with Jody. So it’s in the dance that she finally stands up to him, sort of chooses Charlie, but ultimately learns to stand on her own two feet as a dancer. While it makes for a stunning performance, from a storytelling perspective it’s a bit odd. Remember, Cooper choreographed it, so she’s not actually making any of the decisions on her own. She is bringing an attitude to it though, a new belief in herself, which drives the performance home.
There’s a bit of gratuitous dialogue after the show where Jody tells him that while he’s a terrific dancer and choreographer, he’s a lousy boyfriend.
So, with multiple protagonist stories, the key is to create a hierarchy with one protagonist taking priority over the others. Find ways to maintain your reader’s interest as you switch from one storyline to another, and remember that if your story runs long, you’ll have to pay very close attention to the narrative drive in your story so that the middle build doesn’t sag. Of course, you’ll also need to make sure that the storyline for each protagonist is fully developed, and you may also have to trade depth for breadth. That is, the internal development of the characters might suffer because you’ve given yourself a very large canvas to cover in a short time.
Leslie – Point of View (POV) and Narrative Device
I’m continuing my study of POV and narrative device this season. If genre is what your story is about, POV and ND are how you deliver it to the reader or viewer, as in our story today. That’s why I firmly believe that your POV and narrative device choice is the most important decision you make after the global genre.
The narrative device or situation is the content or substantive element of the way you deliver the story to your reader and answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events and characters of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told? POV is the technical element, which tells us whether it’s first or third-person, for example. It answers the question, how do we create the effect of the narrative device?
POV and Narrative Device give writers useful constraints for making content and technical decisions from macro to micro–not at random or on a whim, but for solid, story-based reasons. I’m on a quest to understand how POV and ND work and how to choose the best one for your story. I explore this in my upcoming Story Grid beat on POV as well as my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV.
My bite size episode on choosing your POV can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and Narrative Device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Guild, or submit your question through my site, Writership.com/POV.
What’s the narrative opportunity presented by the premise?
I start my analysis by asking about the opportunity presented by the premise. The premise is a specific character(s) in a setting with a problem.
Center Stage is about Jody and her fellow students and friends in the American Ballet Academy who want to succeed as dancers.
Performance Story question: Will the protagonist do what’s necessary to unconditionally express their individual gift? A lot of what dancers—or drummers or baseball players or painters— do is practice. Practice, training, and study are the day-to-day actions that allow an artist or athlete or scientist to express their unique gifts in the world. While this is an important element of Performance stories, it’s repetitive and not that interesting for readers. We need to include some of this (training is a convention of the Performance genre), but the story is really about the external and internal obstacles that get in the way. So we need to see the protagonist interact with others in multiple areas of their lives.
Similarly, the Status story requires a representation of different levels of social standing and a wide range of perspectives.
The POV and narrative device for a global Performance Story usually should allow for multiple settings and perspectives to fulfill its promise, especially since we have one central protagonist with several other secondary and tertiary characters.
What’s the POV?
POV is tricky to identify in films. But what do the scenes reflect? The scenes get close to the characters, but it still feels to me that we’re on the outside looking in. We spend very little time with the characters when they are alone. Almost always at least one other character observes the primary character in each scene. The events seem to be the result of events seen and heard around the academy, so even the scene when Jody is alone with Cooper, it’s something that people could assume based on other events they see or hear about. For example, a student or teacher, like Kathleen, might reach the conclusion that Jody and Cooper have been intimate based on their interactions or from knowing Cooper’s reputation.
I identify the POV as what Norman Friedman calls Dramatic Mode or what others have called anonymous narration with no character point of view. It feels like watching a stage play in which mental states are implied solely by the action. “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway or “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson are examples of this POV.
What’s the narrative device?
We don’t have an explicit or overt narrative device, so I’m working based on the impression the scenes give me and the most likely POV.
It feels to me like a young dance teacher who has combined several events after the fact involving different dancers into one story for other young dancers to help them avoid the pitfalls of pursuing success in dance. The narrator would probably possess some perspective, at least more than the characters within the story. It could be performed as a stageplay or more appropriately a dance (much like the one Cooper choreographs for the workshop in the Core Event).
That motive or purpose in telling the story seems consistent with what I identify as the controlling idea: Dancers gain respect when they express their gifts unconditionally according to their personal definition of success (which includes their moral code).
How well does it work?
How well does the POV/ND choice solve the problem(s) presented by the premise?
The POV and narrative device do a fine job of presenting the story, but it doesn’t really innovate. In a way, it reminds me of manuscripts I’ve seen in which the writer has chosen a global narrative device, but it’s not specific enough to allow them to enact the device through the scenes.
I’ve read that some people really love this story, but I suspect a lot of that is the spectacle of dance and music—and the dance scenes are amazing. But I found myself wishing the ending payoff had been more story and less dance. Writers of novels don’t have the benefit of hiring dancers and musicians to fill in gaps in a story, so if you want to tell a story like this, you need to consider how to replace the visual and auditory spectacle. Let Masterworks that do this well be your guide. I don’t have a great example to recommend yet, but I’m on the lookout for one.
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.
Valerie: If you’re writing a multiple protagonist story, you need to keep a few things in mind:
- Create a hierarchy of characters
- Find ways to maintain your reader’s interest across storyline
- If your story runs long, pay close attention to the middle build and narrative drive
- Keep an eye on the internal and external genres; decide how deeply you want to examine each of your protagonists.
Leslie: Center Stage really highlights the differences between film and written stories. Studying films is valuable—the Roundtable was founded on this idea—but when you want to write a novel, you also need written masterworks to show you how to transfer the film that unfolds in your mind to the page and ultimately to the mind of a reader.
Kim: Understanding the root of your genre and why it exists (the big meta why for humanity) will help you better understand what and why the Core Event moment is, and how to identify it in your story and maximize its impact on your specific audience.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Mark Pyle who asked this question in the Story Grid Guild.
What are some tricks to track multiple POVs in an epic story (A Game of Thrones, etc.) and common problems to watch out for in such a story structure?
Leslie: Excellent question, Mark. Epic fantasy stories like A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin or The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, or even a literary story with multiple POV characters like The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers have extra moving parts that you’ll need to take into account when planning, drafting, and revising your story. The good news is that we use the same tools we would use in a less complex story.
I’ll start with the biggest problems to watch out for then talk about how we use Story Grid tools to solve them. When you have multiple subplots, both external and internal, you add layers of complexity that all need to work together as a unified story. It’s easy to get lost in the writing and end up with a series of interesting events that don’t amount to a central story. It’s harder to figure out what to include or leave out when your story has such a wide scope. There is the temptation, even more than in a typical story, to add events or characters whether they’re relevant or not because it’s cool. After all, what could an extra thousand or three thousand words hurt in a story that’s long anyway. No judgment … we’ve all been there. Epic fantasy readers are patient, but I wouldn’t push things too far.
The best tools to help you solve these problems are the ones that allow you move between the two major units of story: the macro or global story and the micro or the scenes.
The first thing we need to get a handle on is the global story. Subplots abound, but what’s the story really about and what’s the global genre? The tools we use for this are the Editor’s Six Core Questions and the Global Foolscap Story Grid. In working with Valerie on her Psychological Thriller with multiple storylines, we turned the Foolscap into a Ledger with a column for the global or macro story and one each for the major subplots. This allows us to look at the entire story on one large sheet of paper.
Then we need to look at the micro building blocks of the story, the scenes. We use the Story Grid Spreadsheet to evaluate and identify potential problems. One of the columns in the standard spreadsheet is for tracking POV. That allows you to see generally how often and when POV characters are showing up. Keep in mind that the spreadsheet is like a tool belt and you add the tools you need for the level of analysis that you’re doing. So if you need a column specific to your subplots or some other element, go for it. Make the tools work for you.
Choose the tools that work best for you, but don’t be afraid to experiment. In a Guild Q&A session Shawn talked about how he and Scott McClellan used different colors of index cards assigned to different characters with story events that allowed them to move the pieces around and see how they work together. That provides a different perspective and level of analysis. For digital options, you can use the spreadsheet, but you might also consider Scrivener (see how Story Grid editor Randall Surles does that here) or Notion.
The big takeaway is this: No matter how large or small your story is, you need a way to move back and forth between the macro and micro to evaluate whether all the parts are aligned and you’re telling one story with multiple threads.
Join us next time when Valerie will look at the Middle Build in the 2019 film Marriage Story. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?