This week, Jarie pitched Fargo as a great example of the set and the setting driving dialogue. This 1996 film was directed by Joel Coen from a screenplay by the Coen brothers.
Genre: Crime > Caper
- Beginning Hook – When Jerry can’t pay back a shady GMAC loan, he must hire Gaear and Carl to kidnap his wife for a ransom but during their get-a-way, a state trooper pulls them over and things go horribly wrong, ending with the trooper getting killed as well as witnesses that were driving by.
- Middle Build – When Brainerd police discover the murdered trooper and witnesses, Chief Margie starts an investigation that turns up the heat on Jerry who is getting desperate for the money to pay off the shady GMAC loan. Wade does not trust Carl with the ransom so he delivers it to Carl and they get into a gunfight where Carl shoots Wade dead.
- Ending Payoff – When Jerry shows up to the garage, he finds Wade dead and puts him in the trunk of his car. When Margie swings by Jerry’s dealership, he flees. When Carl comes back to give Gaear his money, Gaear attacks Carl and as Margie drives by, she sees the car and comes upon Gaear feeding Carl into a woodchipper. The police catch up with Jerry in Bismarck and arrest him.
Kim- To which we all say, hurray! I don’t think I’ve ever heard a sound as simultaneously disturbing and pleasing as Jerry’s wailing sobs when his caught and handcuffed in the hotel. Justice is served. Thanks Jarie.
Since I’m on host duty this week, I dug into some fun facts about the film. I was fascinated that the opening text says this is a true story.
“The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
And they leave it on the screen so long you can’t help but read it.
But turns out it’s not.
The Coen brothers said, “We wanted to make a movie just in the genre of a true story movie. You don’t have to have a true story to make a true story movie.” Even so, Fargo did take inspiration from two real-life events. One, a General Motors Finance Corporation employee who committed fraud by playing around with serial numbers, as we see Jerry Lundegaard (William H Macy) do. The other was the murder of Helle Crafts, a Connecticut woman whose husband killed her and disposed of her body by putting it in a wood chipper. “Beyond that, the story is made up.”
My question: Why is it called Fargo if it takes place in Minnesota? All kinds of fun theories on Reddit and beyond. But this is the best one I found:
ZorroMeansFox• Apr 20, 2014, 2:52 PM
The title serves as a metaphor for the central character going to a different, unknown, life-changing place: In the case of Fargo, it’s the place that Jerry goes to (in the first scene of the story) to seal the deal (along with his Fate) regarding the staged kidnapping of his wife. So, simply: “Fargo” means “a place outside your normal existence that, once visited, alters your Life forever.”
Okay so now that we’ve got all that sorted, let’s hear Jarie’s study of how set and setting drive dialogue in Fargo.
Jarie- Before I dig into Fargo, let’s quickly review how we have been evaluating dialogue. Recall, that in the episode on The Shawshank Redemption, we talked about FUNCTIONS and TASKS of dialogue, which gave us a way to evaluate what the dialogue is doing for us in the story.
The FUNCTIONS being Exposition, Characterization, and Action and the six TASKS being:
- Express inner action
- Action/Reaction intensifies and builds to the turning point
- Conveys exposition
- Unique verbal style for the character
- Captivates the reader/audience
- Authentic to the character and setting
Many of these FUNCTIONS and TASKS are present in dialogue as we saw in The Shawshank Redemption. While the FUNCTIONS and TASKS are a good way to look at the dialogue in a story, it’s not the full picture. McKee had another way that I feel is a better way to look at dialogue and aligns nicely with the Story Grid Method. It’s called the Five Stages of Talk
McKee’s Five Stages of Talk (on Page 189 and 193-194 of his book Dialogue) takes the FUNCTIONS and TASKS and gives us a complete way to look at how dialogue is working in the beats/scene of a story. This is particularly relevant in Fargo where the set and the setting has a big impact on the dialogue and these stages of talk.
McKee’s Five Stages of Talk are:
- Desire: What the character wants to achieve in the scene. Mostly, it’s to get back to a life balance that has been disrupted from the status quo.
- The Sense of Antagonism: What is preventing the character from getting back to balance.
- Choice of Action: The action he wants to take to get to the desired scene intention or life balance.
- Action/Reaction: The actual action he takes, be it physical or verbal and the reaction that might occur. Desire is the source of action, and action is the source of dialogue.
- Expression: The verbal action as dialogue coupled with any physical act that might also express the actions of the character (e.g. narration of expression, physical act like screaming, stepping forward, clenching a fist, etc.).
The last stage, Expression, incorporates both dialogue and narrative since the only way to express character action is for them to either talk or act or both. This is also the place where what is said and how it’s said (character voice) comes into play.
I’ll apply these stages of Talk (Dialogue) to a few scenes/beats in Fargo but before I do that, let’s look at the set and the setting of Fargo. I’ll take the setting first.
Fargo is set in North Dakota and Minnesota in the winter of 1987. There are three towns/cities that the majority of the action takes place in Fargo, Brainerd, and Minneapolis.
As for the mindset, all of the characters come from this part of the country, which has a particular type of accent and attitude called Minnesota nice, which is “close to the sound of the Nords and the Swedes with head-nodding to show agreement” and the attitude characterized by “the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota, to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered.”
Okay. So now we know where we are at and what to expect — courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered people who nod their head in agreement all while trying to stay warm from the frigid cold. You betcha!
Let’s take a look at some dialogue and apply McKee’s Five Stages of Talk.
Our first scene is when Gaear and Carl get pulled over in Brainerd by a State Trooper
CARL: How can I help you, Officer?
TROOPER: Is this a new car then sir?
CARL: It certainly is, Officer. Still got that smell
TROOPER: You’re required to display temporary tags, either in the plate area or taped to the inside of the back window.
TROOPER: Can I see your license and registration, please?
CARL: Certainly. Yeah, I was gonna tape up those … The tag. You know, to be in full compliance, but it must have [CARL shows a $50 to the TROOPER] … must have slipped my mind. So maybe the best thing to do would be to take care of that right here in Brainerd.
TROOPER: What’s this sir?
CARL: My license and registration. Yeah, I want to be in compliance. I was just thinking we could take care of it right here, in Brainerd.
TROOPER: Put that back in your pocket please, and step out of the car, please, sir.
[TROOPER hears Jean whimpering. Looks in the back and Gaear smashes his head then shoots him dead.]
Let’s look at the 5 stages from Carl’s point of view.
- Desire: Carl wants to get rid of the Trooper so that he does not find Jean.
- The Sense of Antagonism: The Trooper.
- Choice of Action: Carl tries to talk his way out of the trooper sniffing around by hinting at a bribe.
- Action/Reaction: Carl presents his wallet with a $50 sticking out of it. The Trooper senses the bribe and asks Carl to “put that back in your wallet and get out of the car.”
- Expression: Carl looks at Gaear, wondering what to do. Gaear smashes the cop against the car and shoots him dead. Carl, in shock, says “Whoa. Whoa, Daddy.”
That beat, within this tense scene, both shows and tells how the mindset of the characters and the setting they are in drive both what they say and how they say it.
Leslie: Hey Jarie, I’m curious about how you choose your examples from the film. Can you say a little about that?
Jarie: Sure Leslie. For this movie, I wanted to pick scenes or beats that would be easy to see the Five stages of talk in. I also looked at major progressive complications or places that had some good exposition, especially from new characters, like the Margie scene. I also wanted scenes that were not too long.
Probably the best character in the whole movie is Margie, who at 0:35:59, has a wonderful scene as she arrives at the crime scene. I won’t go through the whole scene since it’s too long but one part reveals some exposition in, I think, a clever way.
MARGIE: And I’ll tell you what. From his footprint, he looks like a big fella. [MARGIE doubles over.]
LOU: You see something down where, Chief?
MARGIE: No. I just think I’m gonna barf.
LOU: Jeez. You okay Margie
MARGIE: Fine. It’s just morning sickness. Well, that passed.
MARGIE: Yeah. Now I’m hungry again.
They conclude the scene by saying, let’s go see the trooper. Let’s look at the 5 stages from Margie’s point of view.
- Desire: Margie wants to figure out who killed these people
- The Sense of Antagonism: The killers
- Choice of Action: Talk it through with Lou
- Action/Reaction: She pauses and doubles over. Lou asks what’s wrong
- Expression: She tells him she’s going to throw up because she has morning sickness.
That last bit of exposition, confirming that Margie is pregnant, is cleverly revealed in the scene through both narrative and dialogue where you’re miss directed in that you think that the dead body is getting to her but it’s not. Valerie pointed out before the call. Margie can look at two dead bodies but the morning sickness can still get her. That shows us what kind of person she is.
There are other scenes that are great examples as well like when Officer Olson is talking to Mr. Mohra at 1:14:00. The whole exchange is perfectly in the set and the setting for Minnesota Nice. The banter is just spot on and the reason I feel that Fargo just nails the dialogue in every scene because it’s appropriate to the set and the setting of the movie.
Kim- Now I want to go on record and say that my good friend’s husband is from that area and he made it very clear that the Coen brothers are greatly exaggerating the Minnesotan dialect and mannerisms. This is dark comedy, not real life. You’re welcome, Kirk.
Anne – My first thought about the over-the-top dialect was that it was almost cultural appropriation, made into a stereotype. But then I discovered that the Coen Brothers are from Minnesota, which gives them a pass. I guess we’re allowed to make fun of our “own people.” See the TV show “Portlandia” for another example.
I’m changing my approach a little bit this week. Usually I focus on narrative drive, but this past week, Neil Gaiman’s Masterclass was released and he has an excellent lesson on dialogue and character. So, since we’re talking about dialogue this week, I thought it would be fun to apply his advice to Fargo to see how it plays out.
If you haven’t discovered Masterclass yet, I highly recommend you check it out because it’s an opportunity to hear professionals talking about their craft. It’s writers talking to writers, and we don’t get to hear this anywhere else.
You can get an annual subscription (like I have – and it’s worth every penny), but if you just want to buy one course, I suggest you start with Neil Gaiman’s.
In his lesson, he talks about dialogue on a micro and macro level. That is, he gives advice for how to technically write dialogue, but also what dialogue is for.
Interestingly, dialogue comes up in just about every writing-related Masterclass. I had time to review additional lessons on dialogue from David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, James Patterson, Judy Blume, Margaret Atwood and Shonda Rhimes. Not surprisingly, these masters have all touched on the same points, namely:
- Dialogue has a rhythm: Aaron Sorkin says that dialogue is like music to him and that all the rules of music apply to writing dialogue (tempo, dynamics, stacatto, legato etc). David Mamet said that iambic pentameter is the natural rhythm of english speech.
- Dialogue isn’t real speech: Neil Gaiman worked for years as a journalist and part of his job was to transcribe interviews and then turn what the interviewee actually said into something that sounded like them but was readable. People don’t speak in sentences. We don’t speak using punctuation.
- Dialogue is directly tied to objects of desire, in other words is shows plot: Characters speak because they want to find something out or, as Margaret Atwood teaches, they could also be making some social move or power play, or trying to be seductive. She’s talking here about what we’ve called literal and essential action; in other words, sub-text.
- Dialogue is character: What a character says reveals who they are. What they don’t say is equally revealing.
The first two points are more on the level of line editing, or line writing, and I don’t really have time to go into them here. But, if this is something you feel you need to improve in your own writing, you can study the various Masterclass lessons. They all come with workbooks, and the writing exercises Neil Gaiman teaches in his workbook are among the best I’ve seen.
Ok, so in a nutshell, here’s Neil Gaiman’s thoughts on dialogue:
“Dialogue is character. The way that somebody talks, what they say, and how they say it is character. And dialogue has to show character. It also has to show plot. And maybe it can be funny along the way.”
Dialogue has to show character and it has to show plot (and the plot of course, is tied to objects of desire). So, how does the dialogue in Fargo accomplish these things?
Let’s start with Marge. She’s a smart, tough, pregnant cop and clearly the breadwinner of the family (her husband, Norm, is a painter). Tough in the sense that she can handle the challenges her job throws at her. We saw her look at dead bodies without flinching. But, her job is not everything— in fact it’s secondary to her friends and family. At the crime scene she thinks about her husband and wanting to buy nightcrawlers for him. When she walks into the station she orders Skin So Soft from a colleague, who is below her in the chain of command. Skin So Soft is an Avon product, so here we have a boss supporting an employee in their side job. Why? Well, it could simply be a hobby for the employee, or it could be a necessary income stream. Either way, many bosses would not tolerate an employee using office time to develop their side hustle. Not Margie.
At the end of the film, Marge even tells Gaear at the end of the film that money isn’t everything.
There’s a huge difference between dialect and dialogue. Fargo clearly has a regional dialect happening, but that isn’t what makes great dialogue. It creates authenticity and adds to the atmosphere of a story, but dialect doesn’t reveal character (except where a character is from) and it doesn’t move plot forward.
There’s one scene where dialect and dialogue dovetail beautifully. It’s when Marge and Norm are at the all-you-can-eat buffet. In that scene, we understand from what Marge doesn’t say, that as a woman she feels undesirable. (Happens to the best of us at 7 months pregnant!) She’s already decided to meet Mike in Minnesota, and in this scene, we get one of the few examples of subtext in Fargo. Watch it closely and observe the body language between husband and wife. Notice Norm’s reaction to Marge’s statement that she’ll drive into town. His “yeah?” is loaded. It’s very well done.
There’s also a beautifully crafted exchange between Jerry, Wade and Stan that reveals the characters of all three men while also moving the plot forward.
WADE: Look, all’s I know is, you got a problem you call a professional.
JERRY: No. They said no cops. They were darn clear on that, Wade. They said, you call the cops and we’re gonna shoot!
WADE: Of course they’re gonna say that. Where’s my protection? They got Jean here. If I give these sons of bitches one million dollars, where’s my guarantee they’re gonna let her go?
JERRY: Well, they…
WADE: A million dollars is a lot of damn money.
JERRY: Yeah, but …
WADE: There they are. They got my daughter.
JERRY: Think this thing through, Wade. You give ‘em what they want, why won’t they let her go? You gotta listen to me on this one, Wade.
WADE: Aw heck, you don’t know. You’re just whistling Dixie here. I’m saying the cops, they can advise us on this. I’m saying call the professionals.
JERRY: No. No cops. That’s final. This is my deal here, Wade.
JERRY: Jean is my wife here.
STAN: I gotta tell ya, Wade. I’m leaning to Jerry’s viewpoint here. We gotta protect Jean. We’re not holding any cards here, Wade. They got ‘em all, so they call the shots.
JERRY: You’re darn tootin’.
WADE: Oh, damn it.
STAN: I’m tellin’ ya.
WADE: Well, why don’t we…Stan, I’m thinking we should offer them half a million.
JERRY: Now come on here! No way, Wade. No way.
STAN: We’re not horse trading here, Wade.
STAN: We gotta just bite the bullet on this.
STAN: So, well, what’s the next step here, Jerry?
JERRY: They’re gonna call me up and give me instructions for a drop. I’m supposed to have the money read tomorrow.
WADE: Damn it!
CASHIER: How was everything today?
JERRY: Yeah, real good, now. How you doing?
STAN: Ok, now we’ll get the money together. Don’t worry about it, Jerry. Now ah, do you want anyone at home with you until they call?
JERRY: No ah…they don’t…they were just suppoed to be dealing with me. They were real clear.
JERRY: You know, they said no one listening in. They’ll be watching. You know, maybe it’s all bull but like you said, Stan, they’re calling the shots.
STAN: Ok. Now, is Scotty going to be all right?
JERRY: Yeah. Jeez. Scotty. Yeah, I’ll go talk to him.
In two minutes the writers have established that Stan is the only character with any shred of moral fibre. He’s the only one showing a genuine interest in Jean and Scotty. He’s also the brains of the operation. Wade is a rich man, but he doesn’t understand how to make a deal or when to negotiate. Stan does.
So really, although Wade is rich, he isn’t any better at making deals than Jerry is. He just has the good fortune of having Stan as an advisor.
This is a setup that pays off later when Wade insists on making the ransom drop.
There’s also a line in this scene that is like fuel on the fire of narrative drive. Jerry has said previously that they’ll ask for $80,000 which will be split 50/50 with the kidnappers. Here, they’re talking about $1,000,000. That raises all kinds of questions in the viewers’ minds. It tells us more about Jerry than we knew previously, and it propels the plot forward. What’s Jerry really after here? What is his true external conscious object of desire? Is it the money? Nope. It’s proving that he’s a better deal maker than his father-in-law. What this is, at its core, is a pissing match.
Leslie – Conventions of the Nordic or Scandi Noir Story
I disagree that Fargo is a caper for several reasons, but chief among them is that the life value ends in justice, rather than poetic justice, as we’ve seen in other caper and heist stories. We’re also not rooting for the criminals. Finally capers usually deal with property crimes or fraud, rather than murder. This began as a kidnapping and fraud gone bad, but the first murders happen early enough that these crimes become what the story is about.
My best guess about why it looks and feels like a caper is the use of dramatic irony, where we know more than Margie does. We spend a lot of time with the criminals, and find out why they “dunit” early on. The dark comedy element also contributes to the caper feel. To me it’s as if the Coen brothers wanted to show both sides of the criminal transaction, but ultimately the focus is on the criminals being exposed and brought to justice for murder.
I would put Fargo in the Nordic or Scandinavian Noir category. These crime stories are a subset of Murder Mystery-Noir that have common features or conventions, including the setting, in Scandinavia; the mood and style that is bleak, dark and grim; and strong characters, particularly the investigator. They are said to have been inspired by the dark police procedurals of Ed McBain. They’ve grown in popularity thanks to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and the category has taken root in other locations, as far away as Australia.
In addition to the typical conventions of a crime story, the Scandi Noir includes the following elements:
- Language: Writers employ plain language, avoiding metaphor, the prose and dialogue are spare, realistic, and stripped of unnecessary words.
- Setting: As I mentioned earlier, these stories developed in Scandinavian countries, but have branched out to other bleak landscapes. The mood is dark, and tension arises from the brutal and often gory crimes against the quiet and still background.
- These stories are most often told from the perspective of female amateur/professional detective.
- The moral component of these stories includes social criticism, the inequality, cultural tensions, and racism beneath an apparently integrated and socially progressive society.
- Along those lines, Margie doesn’t have an internal arc, but there is moral weight to her position, of course.
- The criminals follow a punitive curve, but to me this the baked-in moral component of these stories, rather than a true internal genre. When a story has an integral moral component, like Nordic Noir, or maturation component, like a love story, I would categorize them as “means of turning the plot” rather than the plot. To my mind, the difference between an internal plot and the means of turning the plot comes down to what the story is about. I’ll be testing this hypothesis in the future.
Examples of Nordic Noir include the following: Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, Rebecka Martinsson series by Åsa Larsson, and set outside of Scandinavia, includes stories written by Ann Cleeves, the Vera Stanhope and Shetland series–all of which have been adapted for movies or television. Other movie/TV examples: The Bridge, which gave rise to The Tunnel and Marcella; Forbrydelsen, which gave rise to The Killing in the US and Broadchurch in the UK. Mystery Road is an example of Crime Noir set in Australia.
What I am coming to understand about conventions is that they are a list of ingredients for the type of story you want to tell, but they are more than that. Our innovation of conventions for genre and category represents one way we share our unique perspective about the world, or a way of entering the conversation with other writers and readers of the same types of stories, focusing on the life values the stories implicate.
Kim – As you were talking about the setting conventions of Scandinavian Noir translating to other bleak landscapes, it couldn’t help but think of the Japanese westerns like Yojimbo that we’ve studied. So fascinating the way that stories can grow and evolve and yet still maintain their pattern of meaning.
Anne – I rewatched Fargo over the weekend for the first time since it was new in theatres in 1996. I remember thinking back then that it was funny, weird, and original. I remember the performances of William H. Macy and Frances McDormand. I remember the snow. The broad accents. And of course the wood chipper.
I mention this as proof that the movie stuck with me.
But this time, with each scene that unfolded, I wondered why I ever liked it. I could barely drag myself through it.
So I thought it would be interesting to use this as an opportunity to look at a question I think all the Story Grid editors get asked at some point:
“Does the Story Grid methodology ruin stories for you?”
It’s a valid question. My answer is…no. Not really.
Here’s what I mean: Story Grid knowledge never stops me from losing myself in a good story. In fact it continues to amaze me how I can be reading a good novel or watching a good episode of TV, and never once think about the Five Commandments or narrative drive or the conventions and obligatory scenes of the genre. Believe it or not, sometimes I don’t even notice the genre.
It’s only when the story isn’t working for me that I think about why in Story Grid terms. And here’s where that knowledge might be a little bit to blame. Before Story Grid, I might soldier on through something I wasn’t enjoying very much because critics or friends loved it. Now, I don’t.
Now, as soon as I notice that itch of distraction, that urge to hit pause and do something else, I go into Story Grid mode. Any slight story enjoyment I might have been experiencing gives way to the very different enjoyment of figuring out how it’s not working.
In this instance, I was variously bored, annoyed and disgusted, and even Roger Deakins’s beautiful cinematography and Frances McDormand’s Oscar winning performance couldn’t overcome that. I can use Story Grid to guess why: the genre was unclear, and even when I finally admitted that this must be some kind of crime-slash-morality story, it spent too much time in the heads of the criminals.
There was an odd feeling of being swayed into sympathy at least for the Steve Buscemi character. I was slightly in sympathy with William H. Macy’s incredibly earnest face, but his character was so weak, stupid, and despicable that I hated him within five minutes.
The investigation was uninteresting because we already knew who the criminals were, so there was zero mystery, and none of the requisite sense of intrigue that I expect in a crime story. Maybe 23 years ago there was enough quirky newness in this movie to gloss over its faults as a story, but that’s long gone.
The fact that the police chief’s husband is a painter had almost nothing to do with the story. It seems to have been some kind of Coen Brothers inside joke. I could see no reason for the chief to be pregnant. If I squint, I think I can detect something about normal life carrying on. Or Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent being flinty and unflappable. Or something.
So let’s talk about target audience. Last week Valerie described how The Spy Who Dumped Me appealed to her teenage daughter, but failed for her. She said that in her late 40s she no longer has patience for the kind of story shenanigans the writers got up to in that instance, or empathy for characters she found unadmirable.
So could my age be my problem with Fargo? I don’t think so. I was 40 when I first saw it in the movie theatre and apparently liked it. I was (arguably) already a mature grown up woman. I had very wide-ranging taste in movies.
So what’s changed? If it’s not simply that I’m not in the target audience, and it’s not Story Grid analysis paralyzing my ability to enjoy anything, why did I like Fargo in 1996 and hate it in 2019?
The times have changed. They’ve changed a lot. And my ideas have changed with them.
I promised the Roundtable team that I wouldn’t lapse into another rant this week, so I’ll keep it low key. I no longer have much tolerance for gratuitous violence. I’m actively pursuing a study of the Heroine’s Journey, which among other things is a way of telling stories whose protagonist doesn’t solve her problems with violence.
To be fair, Marge herself never so much as draws her gun, but to make up for that mildness, Fargo presents a deeply disturbing, mindless and needless killing spree in a sort of over-the-top way that I think was supposed to be “darkly funny.” And we’re in the point of view of the killer each time. One of them kills people who annoy him. The other kills people out of crazed desperation to keep some money. Why wouldn’t I look away in disgust? Why wouldn’t I quit watching?
The world was a different place in 1996. That was three years before Columbine. (For our listeners outside the United States, the first high school shooting took place at Columbine High outside of Denver, Colorado, in 1999.) Since Columbine, there have been more than 100 school shootings in this country, killing some 250 students, teachers and staff. I didn’t have the heart to look up figures for gun deaths as a whole.
This isn’t an attempt to build a causal link between violence in movies and real violence in the streets. My point here is simply that gross, gleeful violence feels way more distasteful to me today than it did 23 years ago–so much so that I can no longer discern what I might have once liked about Fargo because of it.
So though this is very far from the subject of dialogue, I’d like to suggest a couple of questions for writers to ponder:
- Is it possible to have exciting stakes of life and death or justice and injustice in your story without gratuitous or gleeful spree violence? I think the answer is yes, and I plan to continue exploring the question.
- Is it possible for any story to remain “good” when the culture that spawned the story has changed? I think the answer is probably no, but I’m also pretty sure that if Fargo were more solidly constructed around sound story principles, even I might have enjoyed it in 2019 and given it at least a partial pass for the stupid violence.
- Will studying Story Grid ruin stories for you? I truly doubt it. What’s likely to ruin the experience of revisiting an old favorite story is that the times have changed, and you’ve changed with them.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Kim’s good friend Mary who was with her at a writing retreat.
Once you find your character’s inner essential action, are there any best practices about how often it changes?
Are there specific essential actions for each genre?
Is there a pattern or progression essential actions tend to change to? Does say “to draw a dividing line” tend to go to “to get someone to throw them a lifeline” or “to get someone on team” for example?
Anne – Hi Mary. Great question. For listeners who aren’t familiar with it, Essential Action is a concept that Story Grid has borrowed from the acting world.
It’s a method that actors use in deciding how to play a line in a scene. You know that old saw where a minor actor halts production and asks “What’s my motivation?” Good acting relies on the actor knowing the motive behind what their character literally says and does. It drives their choice of subtle expressions and gestures.
That motive for a character in a story comes from their object of desire; that is, their want and need. For the protagonist, that want and that need are absolutely defined by your story’s external and internal genres.
For instance, in an action story with a worldview maturation internal genre, the protagonist wants to thwart the villain and save the victim–that’s the external action part–but they need to change their naive views before they can accomplish that.
As writers, we can put on our movie director beret and “direct” our characters to speak, gesture or make the next choice based on that object of desire.
Essential action is the way they act on their desire from scene to scene. It’s the subtext of what they literally say or do, and it can be boiled down to a handful of basic statements like “I want to get to the bottom of something” or “I want to enlighten the other character to a higher understanding.”
Leslie and I have a Fundamental Fridays post all about essential action, and we also made it into a Bite Size podcast, so be sure to look that up.
So to Mary’s question: is there a rule of thumb for how often one character changes their essential action? Is there some defined progression or pattern to it?
I don’t think so. Since essential action is dictated by the objects of desire, and objects of desire are dictated by the genre, it’s safe to say that one character’s essential action won’t change a lot except at major inflection points in the story–the crisis in each act, probably.
But remember, your characters aren’t acting alone. They’re always REacting–to the other character and to circumstances. So conflict BETWEEN the essential actions of two characters in a scene is…well, essential.
It’s helpful to remember that every villain is the hero of their own story. That other story probably has a different genre from the one your protagonist is living. The schoolyard bully creating a life-and-death Action story for the ten year old science genius might be in a Performance story of her own, acting out of a desire for respect and applause.
When the protagonist figures that out, she changes her strategy, and her essential action in all scenes after that point will change. Where before she had an essential action of, say, “Get someone to respect my boundaries” or “Get off my back,” she’s now acting out of a need to “Teach someone a profound lesson,” or maybe “Put them in their place” in order to save other victims.
As to whether there’s a correlation between essential action and genre? We haven’t studied this question, so all I’ve got is a working hypothesis of “maybe.” Some of the phrases in Leslie’s Essential Action Cheat Sheet seem specific to love stories, and some have a more internal genre feel. Some would seem to fit certain archetypal roles, like Mentor or Victim or Threshold Guardian or Herald, but these roles can occur in all types of stories.
So take a look at that cheat sheet with your character in mind, and see if a set of likely essential actions for that character leaps out at you. It should give you a solid starting point for your thinking.
Thanks, Mary, for a great question!
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Join us next time as Valerie and leads us through her next study of narrative drive with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window specifically as a great example of Suspense. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?