Editor Roundtable: A Fish Called Wanda

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This week, Jarie pitched A Fish Called Wanda as a great example of set and setting driving dialogue. This 1998 film starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, John Cleese and Michael Palin was directed by Charles Crichton from a screenplay by Charles Crichton and John Cleese.

The Story

Genre: Crime > Heist

  • Beginning Hook – When Wanda and Otto double cross gangster George, they must seduce barrister Archie to get him to find out where George hid the jewels they stole.
  • Middle Build – When Wamda starts to seduce Archie, Otto must control his jealousy or else their plan will be uncovered. At George’s trial, Wanda double crosses George which leads Archie to lose the case and reveal his affair with Wanda.
  • Ending Payoff – With Archie’s career and marriage imploding, he seeks to cut his loses by finding the diamonds before the others and moving to South America. Wanda double crosses Otto and leaves him at the mercy of Ken who attempts to kill Otto but fails as Archie and Wanda fly off to South America with the diamonds.

The Principle – Jarie

What we have in A Fish Called Wanda is an interesting mix of set and setting. It’s set in London, England yet the cast is part British and part American which makes for a lot of great dialogue that’s funny and true to character voice.

The main four characters also have unique mindsets that play against each other wonderfully. You have Wanda, the femme fatale who is playing everyone, Otto the weapons man who thinks he’s smart, Ken the stuttering accomplish to George, and Archie, a rather boring English barrister.

Throw all of these characters together, add a diamond heist, and you get A Fish Called Wanda.

Let’s take a look at the first progressive complication that Otto and Wanda run into. It reveals a lot about both of them.

Time 0:14:50 — Otto and Wanda crack the safe

[OTTO is cracking the safe]

OTTO: We’re Rich Wanda.

WANDA: Yep

OTTO: Bet these last two weeks with me have been the most exciting two weeks of your life.

WANDA: [Raises a weapon to strike OTTO] You said it.

[OTTO opens the save. It’s empty. WANDA puts the pipe away]

OTTO: [PANTS] O.K., O.K. [YELLS] Disappointed! Son of a Bitch. What do you have to do in this life to make people trust you?

WANDA: Shut Up.

OTTO: People are always taking advantage of me.

WANDA: Shut up and Think. Where’s he moved it?

[OTTO pulls out his gun and fires at the safe]

WANDA: What are you doing?

OTTO: I’m thinking! I’m thinking what I’m gonna do to him. First I’ll hang him up with Piano wire, Then I’ll … Where are you going?

WANDA: I’m going to talk to him.

OTTO: Then I’ll … Talk to Who? Talk to Who?!

This scene reveals a lot about Wanda and Otto, especially Wanda’s motivations. If we look at the Five Tasks of Speech from Otto’s perspective, his inner workings are revealed:

  1. Desire: Otto wants the diamonds
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: The safe and then George
  3. Choice of Action: Verbal rant
  4. Action/Reaction: Wanda tells him to shut up and think
  5. Expression: Otto shoots the safe while he describes how he will kill George

Otto’s character is pretty shallow and dimwitted although you see him trying to be more educated before but this scene, reveals he’s just a hired gun with no brains.

Time: 01:01:33

ARCHIE: How coma a girl as bright as you could have a brother who’s so … [Otto enters the frame]

OTTO: Don’t call me stupid.

ARCHIE: AAH!

WANDA: AAH!

ARCHIE: Oh My Jesus Christ! Oh! AAH!

WANDA: Otto!

OTTO: Come on!

WANDA: Otto, ouch

OTTO: Come On.

WANDA: Otto, ow! Ow!

OTTO: Come On. I’ll Deal with You later

ARCHIE: What have you done with her?

OTTO: She’s all right

WANDA: [Banging on the door] Otto!

OTTO: Now. Apologize!

WANDA: Otto!

ARCHIE: What?

OTTO: Apologize!

ARCHIE: Are you totally deranged?

OTTO: You pompous, Stuck-up, snot-nosed, English, Giant, Twerp, Scumbag, Fuck-Face, Dick-head, Asshole!

ARCHIE: How Very Interesting. You’re a true vulgarian, aren’t you?

OTTO: You are the Vulgarian, you Fuck! No! Apologize!

ARCHIE: What? Me to You?

OTTO: Apologize!

[Cuts to close up of ARCHIE]

ARCHIE: All right, All right, I apologize.

OTTO: You’re really sorry?

ARCHIE: I’m really, really sorry. I apologize unreservedly.

OTTO: You take it back?

ARCHIE: I do. I offer a complete and utter retraction. The imputation was totally without basis in fact and was in no way fair comment and was motivated purely by malice. I deeply regret any distress that my comments may have caused you or your family and I hereby undertake not to repeat any such slander at any time in the future.

OTTO: O.K.

This scene shows a great example of character voice and the use of dialogue by Otto and Archie. They are both as different as oil and water but the scene works because it’s clear what Otto is after — respect. If we look at the 5 Tasks of Talk, we find:

  1. Desire: Archie wants Wanda. Otto wants respect
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: Archie > Otto. Otto > Archie
  3. Choice of Action: Otto escorts Wanda out the room.
  4. Action/Reaction: Archie gets upset. Otto demands an apology.
  5. Expression: Otto hands Archie out the window until he apologizes

Notice also that the scene raises the complications by a power of 10 with Otto handing Archie out the window. In a perfect British way, Archie calmly apologies and never loses his cool. This is perfectly Archie and perfectly Otto and makes for a great scene.

For my money, the best scene for set and setting driving dialogue is when Archie makes it to George’s flat to find Ken tied up while Otto makes off in his car with Wanda.

Time 1:35:00

ARCHIE: Where have they gone? Quick. Where have they gone?

KEN: The C– The C–

ARCHIE: The what? Are you all right? Where have they gone?

KEN: They’ve Gone to The– They’ve have gone to the– Cath–Cath– [Stuttering]

ARCHIE: Are you ill?

KEN: N-N– The C-C-C–

ARCHIE: Have you got a Stutter?

KEN: Y-Y-Yeah

ARCHIE: O.K. Don’t Worry. Don’t Worry. Do you know where they’ve gone? Fine Where?

KEN: Th C-C– Hotel.

ARCHIE: Hotel? Which Hotel?

KEN: C–C? The CA– The C-C-C–

ARCHIE: Go on. Go on.

KEN: The C-C– The C-C–

ARCHIE: All Right. Wait, Wait, Wait. Slowly. Very Slowly. Slowly.

KEN: The C- The CA– The CA– The CA–

ARCHIE: No Hurry

KEN: The C-C-CA–

ARCHIE: S-S-Sing it. Sing.

KEN: The CA– The CA– The CA– The CA–

ARCHIE: Plenty of Time

KEN: CA– The CA–

ARCHIE: OH, Come On. I’m Sorry. I’m Sorry. All Right. Wait. Here. Write it. Write it. Cathcart Towers Hotel?

Ken: Cathcart Towers Hotel

ARCHIE: Where is it? KEN, Where is it? Where?

KEN: HE–HE–HE

ARCHIE: Here. Again. Again. No

ARCHIE: Heathrow Airport

Let’s apply the 5 tasks of Talk to this scene since it’s probably the clearest example of how it’s operating:

  1. Desire: Archie wants to know where Otto and Wanda are off too.
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: Ken’s stutter
  3. Choice of Action: Archie tries to calm Ken down.
  4. Action/Reaction: Ken still stutters. Archie tells him to write it down.
  5. Expression: Archie reads Ken’s writing and then Ken says it perfectly.

Talk about a scene that uses character voice (or lack of it) to build tension and then the twist at the end with Ken saying it perfectly.

There are so many great scenes and use of dialogue to tell the story. Yes, at times, it’s a bit silly and “on the nose” or whatever people will hate on. I get it. This movie is not for everyone but it’s a great example of masterful character development, voice, and dialogue.

Valerie – Comedy and Dialogue

I’m going to do things a little differently this week. Even though I’ve been studying narrative drive this season, A Fish Called Wanda is one of the films that Robert McKee used as a case study during his comedy day seminar. So, I thought it might be interesting to hear some of the things he had to say about the film, about comedy and yes, about dialogue in comedy!

I think comedy is one of the most challenging things for a novelist to pull off because we don’t have the benefit of an immediate reaction from our readers. We write something and then months or years later someone reads it; we may never know if anyone found it funny. By contrast, stand-up comedians, tv writers and film writers can test the jokes and make adjustments to get the biggest laughs possible. As McKee says, in comedy if the audience laughs it works. If they don’t, it doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.

One of the things that McKee covered in his seminar is the conventions of a comedy. Since this is something we study at Story Grid, let me go over them quickly.

  1. No one gets hurt. This is essential because pain creates empathy which kills the laughs. John Cleese has said that the casting of the dogs was critical. They had to be annoying dogs, not lovable Labs or Retrievers but yappy, irritating Yorkies. Even though the dogs die, there is no blood—in fact, it’s obvious that they’re stuffed animals. An interesting side note, the filmmakers originally had blood coming out from under the crate that killed the third dog. Audiences were horrified, so they reshot it. In one clip, you can still see some red on the sidewalk.

  2. The joke has to be obvious. If the audience has to think about what is funny in the scene, or what the joke is supposed to be, then it isn’t funny. For example, when Wanda is at Archie’s house and Wendy comes home, we understand the set up, the stakes and why this is a funny situation.

  3. Happily Ever After (HEA): Comedies end on a positive note to give audiences a sense of hope. McKee calls comedy “the angry art” because writers are so fed up with the absurdity of life they they have to make fun of it as a way to cope.

  4. An Attack: Comedies attack social institutions or personality traits—anything that annoys the comedian. However, from the character’s point of view, none of it is funny. The angrier the writer is, the funnier the story needs to be. What’s being attacked in A Fish Called Wanda? The class system. It’s answering the question, ‘what happens when the middle class becomes criminal?’.

A word about empathy in comedy. The first point in the list I just gave is that no one gets hurt in a comedy because it creates empathy, and empathy kills the humour. It’s hard to laugh at someone we relate to because that requires us to laugh at ourselves which is very hard to do. Most people can only do it in hindsight. In middle age we can laugh about some naive thing we did when we were teenagers, but when we were teens, it was serious stuff.

However, in A Fish Called Wanda, Archie becomes an empathetic character. This creates a shift in the story, and in the audience. We start out laughing at Archie—he’s a bit of a clown—but when it’s clear that he loves Wanda, has no fortune of his own and is being set up to fail, we no longer laugh at him. Instead, we begin to root for him. At around the same time, we realize that Wanda genuinely cares for Archie (if she didn’t, she’d become a villain and we’d hate her). So although the crime story is still going on, and there is still comedy, it’s the love story that drives that last half hour of the film. Ken and Otto are carrying the comedy.

Now, what about dialogue? Is dialogue different in comedy than in drama? As it turns out, yes! Of course, on the screen you can dispense with dialogue completely and still have a hilarious scene. The best example I can think of is the Valentine’s Day episode of Frasier; a Valentine for Niles. In Wanda, the scene where Otto apologizes to Archie has very little dialogue in it, and could possibly have gotten away with even less.

Comedy is all about timing and so dialogue has to be economical; the writer must get rid of all needless words. One laugh has to be timed with the next, and jokes can be set up, or paid off, with a line of dialogue.

McKee gives 14 different comic techniques and a few of them have to do with dialogue.

  1. Double Entendre: This speaks directly to literal and essential action; one conversation that has two very different meanings. It’s the difference between what’s literally being said, and what the characters think is actually being talked about.

  2. Repetition: Monty Python’s parrot scene, or Otto’s constant repetition of “don’t call me stupid”.

  3. Puns/Word Play: This gets huge laughs if done properly, but when done poorly well, they’re dad jokes that elicit groans.

In the Story Grid method, comedy comes from the style leaf of the Genre Clover. Even though comedies can be completely silly, they still adhere to story form. The difference between drama and comedy then, according to Robert McKee anyway, is that drama appeals to the emotions while comedy appeals to the intellect. It takes brains to laugh.

Anne – Know Yourself as a Writer

This was one of many movies we’ve watched for the podcast that I saw originally when it was new–and one of several that appealed to me then but no longer does.

Following Valerie’s excellent advice in our Live From Nashville episode a couple of weeks ago, I persisted until I could figure out why, and it’s pretty simple: I felt almost zero empathy for any of the characters.

Yes, Wanda became a little more sympathetic as I realized that her affection for Archie had turned genuine. But her one great skill–deceiving and seducing men with her lovely figure–didn’t make her especially admirable. Yes, I felt a bit sorry for Ken, the Michael Palin character, with his stutter and the bullying Otto subjects him to, but that empathy is offset by his being a cold-blooded murderer.

Archie struck me as a gullible buffoon, uninvolved with his family. Supposedly we forgive him, because his wife and daughter are indifferent to him. It seems to be a wreck of a marriage, but the setup there is strongly driven by the male gaze. I think “we”–which is to say the default target audience of all action and crime films in the 1980s, which is to say men between the ages of 18 and 34–are supposed to see Archie’s wife as a mercenary social climber, and compare her spare, thin form and aging face unfavorably to Wanda’s physical charms. “Who could blame him?” seems to be the question, while I found myself asking, “Who could blame Wendy for having become bored with him?” and in fact the moment where she sees the truth and walks away from him struck me as the one heroic moment in the whole show, and the only instance of some form of that poetic justice which the subgenre calls for.

So, the empathy that’s required for comedic effect was lacking for me. Without it, I felt very little narrative drive, either.

All three forms of narrative drive depend on the viewer or reader giving a damn about a character, and I didn’t. The crime genre overall depends on the intrigue we experience, either puzzling out the crime with the detective, or–in the heist and caper subgenres–as clever criminals plan and commit their intricate crime and then get away with it.

But the crime here was more of a farce than a puzzle. It was played as victimless–the owners of the stolen diamonds have no role in the story–so we couldn’t even despise them the way we despise the corporations or institutions or evil rich people who are usually the victims of the heist or caper. These subgenres depend on our liking the criminal protagonists, or at least admiring their skills. But there’s no intricacy or wit or planning to admire here.

And the only skill to admire is Wanda’s talent for lying and seduction. I don’t find either particularly admirable, especially because they aren’t deployed against a villain.

Otto is a violent, low-intelligence thug. Ken is little more than a pair of jokes–his speech impediment causing “hilarious” delays, and the irony of a professional killer loving animals, and then accidentally killing a lot of animals.

George never really registered on my mind at all, not even as a stereotyped London low-life. Archie is a dupe being led around by the genitals.

I felt a tiny bit of suspense during the sex-farce scene where Wanda and Archie are about to be caught by Archie’s wife. Will Wanda escape undiscovered? And I’ll admit to enjoying the farcical way the characters just miss seeing each other hiding behind doors and sneaking away. It’s a familiar, well-worn trope, but kind of funny anyway.

Deriving comedy out of the killing of animals did less than nothing for me, and any suspense I experienced over whether Ken was going to succeed in killing the old woman eyewitness was completely offset by how not-funny I found the very idea of rooting for him.

The short version of all this is that I’m not in the target audience for this film. So what can I draw from that for myself as a writer?

It comes down to something that I find in reading online user reviews of any kind of story: there’s a huge difference between objective criticism and personal taste. Does A Fish Called Wanda work on its merits as a heist comedy with a love subplot? Sort of. It hits enough of the obligatory scenes and conventions to satisfy a lot of viewers, and its humor is supposed to cover its other deficiencies. It’s not the movie’s fault that its humor isn’t to my taste,

So would I give this movie a one-star rating on Amazon and say “I hated it”?

No, of course not. I’d say to myself, “Okay, Self, take notice: empathy for characters is critically important to you. You should not try to write stories where humor covers for character despicableness. You shouldn’t be writing stories about despicable characters at all unless you can genuinely redeem them somehow, because you like Redemption characters and Admiration characters. Your sense of humor is…let’s say, a little kinder and gentler than what’s shown in this particular movie.”

By the same token, what I write does not appeal to the movie industry’s target demographic of men ages 18 to 34.

So that’s my big takeaway from following Valerie’s advice and sticking seriously with this movie until I solved the puzzle of why it didn’t appeal to me. The takeaway is not “never write a story like this one,” because of course I probably never would. It’s more like “Know who I am as a writer, and who my target audience is likely to be for a given story, be true to that and let the chips fall where they may.”

Leslie – Heist Conventions

I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy this film either, though I remember thinking it was funny when I first saw it many years ago. But as my fellow Roundtablers have explained it’s not enough in this context to say I didn’t like it, so I wanted to get to the bottom of why it didn’t work for me, particularly because the film was nominated for multiple Oscars, Golden Globes, and BAFTAs, with Cleese, Kline, and Palin garnering awards. The film also maintains high ratings on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. I suspect for me this comes down to evolving cultural standards, and this film simply doesn’t play as well in 2019 as it did in 1988.

This is a Heist film, a subgenre of crime that is told from the perspective of the criminal that focuses on the planning, execution, and aftermath of a robbery. Unlike the Caper, which employs amateur criminals, heists are pulled off by people with experience and skills, and that’s part of the attraction. In that, they have a performance element that can add to the emotional stakes in the story.

We’ve talked about how the life value shift in these crime subgenres stories where we’re rooting for the criminal (capers, heists, prison stories, noir, and organized crime) doesn’t reach full justice, like we see, for example, in a murder mystery with a master detective who exposes the criminal. We’ve called the positive result in these criminal-focused stories poetic justice.

But we can’t root for any old criminal because a heist or caper isn’t only about telling the tale from the criminal’s perspective. It seems they must have a point, or be righting some wrong, otherwise we can’t reach poetic justice in the end.

I mentioned in our Mad Money episode that one of the reasons we identify with the criminal protagonists is that they lack financial security, often because they have been the victims of a crime at the hands of the tyrant or a similar figure. Here we don’t get that. There is no indication that Wanda is anything but a criminal, scheming against her co-conspirators–and from the start. So when she is rewarded with the diamonds, it doesn’t feel triumphant, it feels like injustice has been done. The victim is a nameless, faceless jewelry store in London, so there is no one for us to relate to, but nothing supports a conclusion that Wanda is robbing from the rich to give to the poor. In fact, without the where-are-they-now epilogue at the end, I wouldn’t be at all sure that Wanda wouldn’t do away with Archie the moment his back is turned. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the original ending was much darker, but that American test audiences complained.

Conventions

My other hypothesis about A Fish Called Wanda is that it was probably innovative at the time, but since then seems less so–on Rotten Tomatoes list of the top 78 best heist movies of all time, more than 60 percent of them have come out since this movie was released. But let’s look at the conventions for Crime stories to see if this is true.

Characters

Criminal-Protagonists: Usually a group of skilled men, in fact if a female character is involved, she is in a support-position or betrays the team. Wanda plays that role here, and as the primary protagonist, it’s possible we’re meant to appreciate the fact that a woman is getting the better of bumbling men. While that may have played well at the end of the ’80s, today, without the higher moral ground or some point other than enriching herself, it falls flat. Similar to Jackie in Mad Money, who declares her commitment to her co-conspirators by saying, “Why not?”

Type of Antagonists: The Villain-hero inversion creates the need for bumbling antagonist and/or a greedy tyrant as “victim” of the protagonists’ plan so the audience can sympathize with the criminal-protagonists. Wanda seems to be as greedy as George and Otto, so there is very little difference between them.

Setting

Here, it feels like the time in which the film was written and released is the most important setting for the story. UK legal system and its differences from that in the US don’t seem to matter. You could pick this story up and place it anywhere with similar effects.

Means of Turning the Plot

MacGuffin: Wanda wants the diamonds stolen from a nameless, faceless jewelry store. The story doesn’t reveal why she wants these, other than she wants the lifestyle their value can buy.

Investigative Red Herrings: Because we’re not dealing with an investigator, red herrings show up in the way Wanda attempts to mislead her co-conspirators. Mainly she does this by keeping secrets and appearing to be attracted to/in love with them. (Perhaps the reason I don’t buy her conversion in the end is because her behavior with Archie seems no different than it is with George, Otto, or Ken.)

Making it personal: George needs Wanda to give him an alibi. This is not a real dilemma for her because there is no down side.    

Clock: Wanda has to obtain the stolen diamonds before George is released or uses the diamonds to get a lighter sentence.

Overall, I think the film was probably pretty innovative when it was released, and of course, it continues to be appreciated by audiences. If a story like this speaks to you, you’ll want to update and innovate the heck out of those conventions, of course, you’d want to do that anyway. You might also look to stories within the genre that are more timeless and don’t need to be understood within the context of the times.

Kim – Internal Genres

Well, as usual, I liked the story and laughed my ass off 🙂 I found John Cleese’s Archie totally adorable and I got sucked in by the strange is it real or not? romance between Archie and Wanda. Although the story is entirely different, there is something about their dynamic that is oddly familiar and similar to the lovers in my own novel: a professionally successful yet still naive man and a self-absorbed deceitful woman who falls for him in spite of repeatedly trying not to.

Another personally interesting aspect that I was able to take away from this story was the use of comedy and dramatic irony. My own novel uses dramatic irony as the primary driver, and *hopefully* some comedy as well. We’ve noted before that this can be a very powerful combination. What stood out to me was the clarity of each character’s essential action in the scenes, and how that essential action was so contradictory to the literal action they used to get it. Apparently I’m fascinated by lying and deception, probably / hopefully because I’m so terrible at it. It brings up interesting personal questions as to why I would have crafted the heroine of my novel to be a complete liar, and yet I can relate to her so much. So I enjoy Wanda’s character immensely and the more it’s revealed that she is pulling the strings behind everyone’s back the more I liked her. I guess I like how smart she is, her guts, her ambition, the way she is unapologetically herself–even when she’s outright lying. And it’s just so damn funny to watch her work-over every man in the film except when they speak in a foreign language–her sexy kryptonite.

There are several scenes where Wanda is trying to get information from Archie and going about it in a variety of literal ways–fawning over him, asking for his autograph, asking questions about law/procedure, outright trying to seduce him, crying …

Then Wanda goes to meet Archie for the second time at the unused apartment (it belongs to another barrister who is away in Hong Kong). She’s been pulling a con on him all this time but as she readies for him to open the door, she’s not “getting into character” so much as she’s readying herself to meet a real lover. The way she looks at him and kisses him don’t have the “put on” act that we’ve seen from her earlier. When he returns her locket–via an open mouth kiss no less–she genuinely hugs him and says thank you so much. Archie goes to pour them champagne and she checks the locket and confirms the key is still there. This gets her back on track with her plan. They toast, “To us,” she gulps her champagne then says “Let’s make love, right here on the rug.”

It’s down to business now. She wants to win him over to such a degree that he’ll tell her anything and everything she wants to know about George’s case, so she can get the diamonds. So her global want is to get the diamonds, her act-level want is to get Archie to talk to her about the case so she can learn (either now or in the future) where George moved the diamonds and so her scene level want (and has been for many scenes now) is to seduce Archie so he’s smitten with her which literally means to have sex with him. But as she’s preparing to carry out this literal action, Archie does something unexpected.

Along with being particularly funny to me, this scene struck me as particularly interesting because Wanda is in conflict. Her literal and essential actions start to get their wires crossed. As Archie becomes more open about his feelings for her, and his desire for freedom in his life, Wanda in turn starts developing feelings for him. And it makes her uncomfortable. She stops him from talking about why he likes her so much, but then asks him if he speaks Italian. It’s like she can’t decide what to do and what she wants. Is she trying to make him shut up and get this over with or is she looking to justify prolonging their time together. Some new occupants enter the apartment before we get to find out–to a stark naked, dancing Archie, speaking Russian with underwear on his head–but after all that we find Wanda back at the flat (apparently she escaped the apartment without being seen?) as if waiting for Archie to call. And when he breaks things off with her, she seems genuinely sad.

What I like about this scene is that we know that Wanda is pulling a con on Archie (dramatic irony) and yet when Wanda seems to fumble with her own literal/essential actions we are intrigued … is she developing feelings for him? Is she going to tell him the truth? What’s going to happen? In this moment, we shift to mystery. Wanda knows more about what she’s thinking and feeling than she’s letting on. As I mentioned, this dynamic is extremely similar to my own novel so I enjoy seeing it play out here.

When trying to pin down an internal genre for Wanda or Archie…

Beginning:

  • Wanda

    • Character – strong willed, deceitful, selfish motives
    • Thought – sophisticated, cynical, thinks Archie (all men?) are dunces to be used?
    • Fortune – in several fake relationships, running heists in London
  • Archie
    • Character – honest, vulnerable will
    • Thought – sophisticated in law, but naive / vulnerable in love
    • Fortune – successful at work, passive / invisible / unhappy at home

Ending:

  • Wanda

    • Character – not that different, but truthful to Archie about her deception
    • Thought – changes her mind about Archie
    • Fortune – has the diamonds, headed to Rio with Archie
  • Archie
    • Character – he’s become a criminal but he has gained a strong will
    • Thought – less naive about the world / Wanda
    • Fortune – left his unfulfilling life for Rio with Wanda

What the heck kind of arcs are these?

Because these internal arcs are fairly shallow it’s not as easy to draw a hard and fast conclusion. We have small changes to each of the three elements for both Wanda and Archie, but for me both arcs feel most like Status-Sentimental. We’ve seen this pairing before with Crime-Caper stories (Waking Ned Devine and Mad Money) something about it rings true.

And I think that fits well with what I see as a Controlling Idea / Theme of this story:

Love, Success, & Poetic Justice prevail when people (even criminals and cheating husbands) are simply honest with themselves and others about how they feel and what they want, even if those things are selfish.

Certainly a different controlling idea than we’re used to, but that’s the fun and dare I say genius of comedy: to tell the truth, even if it’s not a particularly pretty one.

In this case, it’s that the real crime would be to live a life that is inauthentic.

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

Join us next time as Valerie  takes us back to Buckingham Palace for an examination of dramatic irony in the 2006 historical drama, The Queen. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

About the Author

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched www.Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.
Comments (5)
Author Leslie Watts

5 Comments

Mark McGinn says:

Apart from being the usual incisive podcast where there’s fantastic discussion on story, this particular podcast served as a reminder of the subjectivity of creative works of art. I agree that changes in culture can facilitate a change in our world view and art is not exempt from that. But I’d add this as well. That what we liked 21 years ago, we might not like the same (or even similar) today, regardless of culture. Yes, culture impacts on us all, but what about, (dare I ask) age, wisdom and empathy – not conducive to humor. Might not our changes in taste for humor and other art be a function of things other culture? Just a thought 🙂 Still loving your work, team!!

Reply
ANNE HAWLEY says:

Hey Mark. Insightful as always.

Yes, absolutely: age and [putative] wisdom change everyone’s taste–as attested by the fact that people who cling to adolescent preferences often become the objects of pity or scorn. I’ve thought a lot about my own changing reactions to these older movies, and yeah, sometimes I’ve simply outgrown them.

I felt pretty strongly in the case of Fargo that my change of heart was due more to social change than to personal growth, but I’m not sure how we can ever really pick those two threads completely apart.

In this ongoing analysis about what works, what doesn’t, target audience, changing times, etc., I come back over and over again to “Nothing lasts forever,” and “Be here, now.” That is, the best we can do as authors is write what’s in our heart today.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

I meant to say that where Fargo’s case seemed more clear-cut to me, A Fish Called Wanda was a combination of outgrowing a style of humor AND a societal change, AND Story Grid, which made the structural/genre flaws in the movie stand out more to me than they could have in the past.

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Mark McGinn says:

I didn’t see Fargo the movie, but the mini series on Netflix with Billy Bob Thornton. I did enjoy the series but for the narrative drive and black humour, to which I’m partial. My defense is I’ve worked a long time in courts so I know that with cops, other emergency services and court staff, black humour was a way of coping with a very dark world. But social change has made it’s impact on me too (pardon the pun). I’d need a compelling reason to write a story where women are the victims of gratuitous male violence which, when you think about it, is a huge part of the current crime thriller content. Now, kickass female protag and antag with something more than the Jamie-Lee Curtis character in Wanda was offering, that would be much more interesting.

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JP says:

Comedy is all in the eye of the beholder. I originally watched a Fish Called Wanda back in the early 90s. I always liked Monty Python to a degree, and I found A Fish Called Wanda hilarious. However, I was in the minority. The same can be said for Monty Python in general. A majority of Americans do not find the old series very funny. One can say the same for the humor of Woody Allen, and the Seinfeld series. People in NYC are more likely to appreciate both when compared to people living in Saint Louis or Boisie.

A comedic writer needs to know his audience. Also, there is some humor that apparently doesn’t travel well with time (Think of Mel Brooks and Blazing Saddles).

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