Editor Roundtable: The Fundamentals of Caring

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This week, Kim pitched The Fundamentals of Caring as a great example of a Global Internal Genre. This 2016 heartfelt comedy-drama was written and directed by Rob Burnett, based on novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison. It premiered at Sundance before airing as a Netflix Original film.

The Story

Just a heads up on the language, there are some adult words used in the film and we will have clips and references that feature them.

Genre: Worldview-Education

  • Beginning Hook – When Ben, a writer who’s stopped writing and instead becomes a full-time caregiver for Trevor, a young man wheelchair-bound by Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, is confronted by the possibility of taking Trevor on a weeklong road trip to see the World’s Biggest Pit, he must convince Trevor’s mom it’s possible or else Trevor will never take the chance to live beyond his secure routine. He convinces her, and an apprehensive Trevor, and they hit the road. 
  • Middle Build – When Ben’s encouragement of Trevor to embrace new things ends in disaster (after going to see his estranged father who abandoned him when he was three), they must decide whether to complete their journey to the Pit or just go back home. Eventually they decide to continue but more to please their hitchhiking companions than for the meaningful experience they set out for.
  • Ending Payoff – When their pregnant companion goes into labor at the bottom of the pit, Ben has to face the fear, loss, and pain of losing his own son and help her deliver. The delivery is a success and Trevor is proud of him. They say goodbye to their travel companions and Ben rigs a way for Trevor to finally pee standing up, right into the World’s Biggest Pit. They return to their lives, writing for Ben and shamelessly tricking caregivers for Trevor, and the two remain close friends.

Kim: As I investigate my three film picks this season, I am seeking to understand the What, How, and Why of global internal stories.

Internal Genres are a tricky topic for a lot of us, so studying them at a deep level by getting as specific as possible will help us better understand and create them. Even if you have no interest in telling global internal stories, the majority of global external stories are going to pair with a supporting internal genre, so the deep study will undoubtedly pay its own way.

Let’s dive headfirst down the rabbit hole, shall we?

First up in our exploration of The Fundamentals of Caring is to figure out WHAT the heck it is. We have a fabulous tool for this that we’ve dubbed Friedman’s Framework.

What—what story is being told?

  • Who is the protagonist (the person who undergoes the most change, the one whose welfare is our chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves)?
  • I’m arguing for dual protagonists here, like a love story, with Ben and Trevor, although since Ben is a protagonist and our POV character his genre feels like the global story (if they were different)
  • Contrast this with last week’s Shawshank Redemption where Red is our POV character but Andy is the clear protagonist so it’s Andy’s genre that is the global.
  • What is the protagonist’s situation at the beginning of the story?
  • Ben
        1. Character: What is their willpower and motives, and do we find them sympathetic? Developed will – completes 6 week caregiving course, Refuses to sign papers but not motivated by bitterness: unselfish motives – likes helping people, humble, honest but private. Sympathetic.
        2. Thought: What is their level of thought, sophistication, and belief? Voiceover of ALOHA instructor “if you’re lost, frustrated, confused”, tells wife “I’m not ready” for divorce
        3. Fortune: What is their social standing and do we fear it will get worse or hope it will get better? Unemployed, wife wants divorce, lost a child (not explicit), “retired” from writing
  • Trevor
        1. Character – Enjoys teasing and tricking caregivers, talks tough but is afraid, ingrained in routine, sympathetic
        2. Thought – Intelligent, humorous, sophisticated in many ways but naive others, believes in playing it safe
        3. Fortune – Suffers from DMD, life expectancy is limited, lives mostly housebound, relies on 24 hour care
  • What is the protagonist’s situation at the end of the story?
  • Ben
        1. Character – Unchanged.
        2. Thought – Not lost, not frustrated, not confused
        3. Fortune – Helped deliver a child, agrees to divorce, writing again, no longer Trevor’s caregiver but still his friend
  • Trevor
      1. Character – Stronger will, still enjoys tricking caregivers 🙂
      2. Thought – Gained a lot of life experience, knows he is capable of more than life inside his house
      3. Fortune – Gets to pee standing up, Health is unchanged
  1. What does the audience experience in light of this change? Heartwarming satisfaction and delight.
  2. Express this change as a cause and effect statement. When Ben, a father grieving the loss of his young son, becomes the full-time caregiver for Trevor, a wheelchair bound young man with a wicked sense of humor, the two help each other find a higher quality of life that’s possible amidst difficult circumstances.
  3. Determine which Internal Genre-Subgenre best fits this cause and effect statement. Worldview-Education.

One specific aspect of an Education plot is the protagonist’s decisions and actions in the climax and resolution of the film. They are not going to be all that different from their previous decisions and actions but the underlying motivation is what has changed. In terms of literal and essential action, the protagonist’s global literal action remains consistent but the global essential action is transformed (opposite of what we experience on a scene level). And that’s what an Education story is all about.

The majority of other internal genres require a new decision + action to reach the final life value, but in Education the climactic moment is the transformation of thought. We can specifically compare/contrast this with the other Worldview genres: Maturation’s transformation of thought more often aligns with “all is lost + epiphany/apotheosis” that shifts us into the ending payoff. Maturation has this two part transformation process: realizing your black and white belief was false (which feels traumatic, the cognitive dissonance) then the realization of the deeper gray truth (the kick off to ending payoff). The climax of Maturation is the protagonist’s new decision + action that demonstrates their transformation in thought. The Maturation protagonist gets a new essential action and new literal action. In this way, Revelation is similar to Maturation. Disillusionment is like more like Education.

Before we jump into the HOW of Worldview-Education, Leslie is going to walk us through the Conventions of the genre.

Leslie: Conventions for Worldview-Education

This season, I’m studying conventions, and while I’m focusing on Action plots, internal genres have lots of interesting conventions. As I’ve mentioned before, conventions are the setup for reader expectations and the minimum conditions to create the life value shift in the genre. The conventions I’m including are specific to Worldview-Education. (Maturation, Disillusionment, and Revelation genre stories require slightly different conventions.)

Characters

In any story, the type of protagonist is of vital importance, but when the global genre is the internal one, the character should possess very specific qualities.

In a Worldview Education story, the Protagonist is a sympathetic character who possesses false conceptions, beliefs, or attitudes about themselves or their life circumstances because (1) disillusioning experiences, causing them to become cynical or fatalistic (more sophisticated version) or (2) they haven’t been exposed to alternative possibilities (more naive version).

We have both types in this story.

Ben is the sophisticated type (death of his son robs him of meaning because he believes that being a parent is “the only reason we’re here”). That’s his false belief. More specifically, Ben is a wounded, middle-aged man who is a victim of misfortune, despite having done his best. Since he is no longer a parent, he finds no meaning in his life, presumably can’t write any more, and won’t divorce his wife because he doesn’t want to let go of the only connection to his former life that held meaning for him. What makes him sympathetic, in part, is his desire to help, even though underneath the altruistic motive he is looking to fill a hole within himself.

Trevor exhibits both: sophisticated because his father left the family upon learning of Trevor’s diagnosis and naive because no one has shown him that his illness doesn’t have to limit his life so extensively. More specifically, Trevor is a young man with a severe illness that gives him a life expectancy of seven to ten more years, who clings to rigid routine to feel safe, and pushes away his caregivers with extreme jokes, probably because his father abandoned him. All of this means he spends his life as an observer (reference to watching TV), not as a participant.

The Mentor is someone who can and does see circumstances differently because they haven’t allowed disillusioning events or lack of experience to cloud their conceptions, beliefs, or attitudes. They offer advice in key moments to guide the protagonist toward a more comprehensive view of life.

Dot is a young woman whose mother has died and whose father is a mess. But she doesn’t let the past determine her future. She’s going to Denver to restart her life.

Two key moments when she enlightens Ben and Trevor to higher understanding: (1) when the warning light comes on and Trevor begins to panic and (2) when the visit to Trevor’s father is a disaster and they must decide whether to go on to see the big pit or go home.

Often in Worldview Education stories we see two protagonists possessing similar or mirror-image beliefs, and each occasionally takes on the role of mentor within the story, speaking truth to their cohort.

Shapeshifters are characters who say one thing and do another. Their incongruent behavior wakes the protagonist up, making them realize that something isn’t quite right with their inadequate conceptions, beliefs, or attitudes.

The instructor at the caregiving training: Give care, but don’t care too much.

Trevor’s father thought it was a bad idea to write to his son, but thought it okay to offer him the cash in his wallet.

Trevor’s mom demands an extraordinary level of care for her son, which requires him to take great care, but doesn’t want Ben to get too close.

Setting/Circumstances

Big social problem as subtext: Provides opportunities for challenges to the protagonist’s beliefs.

An uncertain world where bad things happen for no discernible reason. This is the case in any story, but here both Ben and Trevor experience unlikely misfortune that highlights the chaotic nature of the universe. Other events in the story invite the thought, what are the odds? (e.g., running into Dot twice, Peaches going into labor at the bottom of the pit with no warning).

Means of Turning the Plot

Threat or Trial that challenges their conceptions, attitudes, or beliefs. (BH)

Ben: He’s assigned to care for a young man, rather than an older person, as he anticipated.

Trevor: Ben alters Trevor’s macro and micro routine.

Clear Point of no return (MB): After the disaster of meeting Trevor’s Dad, they cannot pretend that there is some reasonable explanation for his failure to take an interest in Trevor’s life.

Win-but-lose, lose-but-win ending (EP): Fulfills the promise of the original threat/challenge:

Ben: He won’t find meaning as a substitute father for Trevor, but he can find meaning in their friendship.

Trevor: Can’t change his illness, but he can let go of rigid routines, form connected relationships, and live a meaningful life.

Anne: Flashbacks

I want to look at something that I imagine Valerie’s been thinking about too. In fact, it’s the element of the movie where our respective main interests coincide: the flashbacks.

My interest this season is complex story forms, and Valerie’s is narrative drive. In The Fundamentals of Caring, we have a mostly straightforward, linear story, told from beginning to end. It’s pretty simple.

So naturally I glommed onto the one non-linear aspect of the story: the flashbacks.

There are just a few instances, but the movie opens on one of them: a little boy laughing and laughing. This image and a few short, slow-motion, almost dreamlike seconds from a single brief memory in Ben’s mind constitute the sum of the flashbacks.

Taken all together, the flashbacks simply tell us that Ben and his son were unloading groceries. Ben put the car in neutral, failed to engage the handbrake adequately, and carried his groceries towards the house, leaving his little boy gathering a few spilled apples behind the car. The car began to roll down the hill, and killed the son.

Four questions come to mind–and they aren’t a bad starting point for anyone questioning the use of flashbacks in their own story:

  1. What story purpose is served by revealing Ben’s backstory in flashbacks?
  2. How would the story differ if instead of flashbacks, we got the whole backstory as a single scene right at the beginning?
  3. How would the story differ if instead of flashbacks we got the same information all at once in dialogue?
  4. How would the story differ if the backstory were removed altogether, in any form?
  1. What story purpose is served by revealing Ben’s backstory in flashbacks?

In a word, it adds the narrative drive of mystery. We don’t know who the boy is or what he signifies, but someone–as it turns out, the Protagonist–does.

In the story’s linear realtime, we see Ben meeting with his estranged wife, refusing to sign divorce papers, and apparently running from process servers to avoid facing the reality of his broken marriage. We gather from dialogue cues that he had a different life before. He’s starting over relatively late in life. Could that little laughing boy in the opening scene have something to do with it?

Naturally we start to wonder. And the remaining flashbacks are distributed just at the right points to keep that question in mind and keep us watching for the answer.

We get part of the answer at about 20 minutes in when Elsa tells Ben that she knows about his son. So the mystery of why Ben is living the way he’s living is partly resolved, because we now know that he had a son who died, and he is grieving.

But there’s still the question of how the boy died, and that mystery isn’t solved until the global climax of the story.

  1. How would the story differ if we simply got the whole flashback scene right up front?

If you plugged the whole flashback in as a scene at the beginning, it would act like a prologue. The next thing you’d need would be some marker of the passage of time–and since in this story it’s only three years, how do you show that? A card that reads “Three Years Later”? That’s overused. You might even call it lazy.

If your prologue is an explanatory appendage set in a different time and place than the main story, the best thing you could do would be to chop it off and distribute its key points in the actual story line. Flashbacks are one way to do that. Exposition–in dialogue or narrative–is the other.

  1. How would the story differ if we simply got that whole download in some kind of exposition?

I can’t think of a single way to get this in without it being awkward, unnatural, or out of character. What Ben remembers is so traumatic that he can’t even speak of it. There is no natural way to insert dialogue about it. “You know that time you let your car roll downhill and run down your child?” Even the very blunt Dot would never say anything like that, or probe into the details.

Another option might be some kind of confessional breakdown–in a therapist’s office, for instance. But that would have involved showing Ben attending therapy, which is out of character for him. It’s also not part of the story, and above all, it’s a well-used cliché.

Finally, the gradual reveal of the whole event adds pathos. Ben is not just a man who’s moving into a traditionally underpaid job. He’s not just a man in denial of his wife’s desire for a divorce. He’s not even just a man whose only child has died. He is a man whose child’s death was more or less his fault.

If we know all that up front, then there’s very little movement in our view of Ben. As Kim has pointed out, Ben’s character doesn’t change. Instead, as the full picture of his tragedy emerges, we change our view of him. We grow in understanding.

  1. Finally, How would the story differ if Ben didn’t have this backstory at all?

I bother posing this rather silly question because all the external action of the story and even some portion of the internal stories of Ben and Trevor would be unchanged without the backstory.

If Ben was just a hangdog, recently-divorced guy–no terrible tragedy–you’d get a goofy comedy about a new caregiver and his wise-ass-but-terminally-ill charge going on a roadtrip and picking up hitchhikers. They could still see the big bovine and the deep pit, Peaches could still have her baby, and Dot could still go off with her dad. Trevor could even still triumph by finally peeing standing up.

But of course, the tragic backstory is the needle that carries the thematic thread right straight through the whole film. It’s a story about family, loss, and human interdependence. The dual themes of parenthood and powerlessness are what tie all the characters together. It’s the very thing that makes this the realistic, internal-genre story that it is.

I conclude that the backstory, told just as it was in five very short flashbacks, was by far the best choice the filmmaker could have made. It helped propel the story forward by adding mystery to the light suspense. It made us change in our view of Ben. It tied the story together, and made it what it is: a Worldview Education story.

Jarie: Set and Setting Driving Dialogue

The Fundamentals of Caring has some wonderful characters that make the story work because their dialogue is true to the subtext that each of them bring to each scene. What I mean by that is that each character’s backstory (background before the scene starts) drives their physical and verbal actions in a true to character way.

Setting plays a critical role in this movie. It starts in Seattle and the characters go on a road trip where they run into characters along the way. There are a lot of scenes in cars, motels, and diners. This makes the dialogue, at times, short and panic filled, silly to try and deal with the crushing boredom of the road, and emotional when the characters guard is lowered and their true raw feelings come out. This all comes across as authentic because the characters are true to their backstory.

Let’s look at each character’s backstory. For some, we won’t know exactly what they would do since part of the story is to slowly reveal why they are the way they are. What we will find, as we do this, is that as the character is revealed through action and dialogue, their backstory will fill in. When we get to the end of the story, we, the reader/viewer, should be saying “yeah, so and so would say or do that.” Let’s start with Ben, Trevor, and Elsa. This comes across in his interview with Trevor’s mother, Elsa, and Trevor. This scene and the dialogue within it, shows and tells us about all three of them:

Time: 02:48

ELSA: Mr. Benjamin. Come in. I was transferred to the States about nine months ago, and we’ve yet to find a permanent caregiver for Trevor. The transition’s been difficult, to say the least. The flight over was the first time he had ever been on a plane. Well, let’s just say, he’s never really been one to relish being outside of his house, let alone 30,000 feet in the air, or here in another country. So, tell me, why’d you choose to be a caregiver?

BEN: PAUSE [quietly] I like helping people

ELSA: Do you have clients at the moment? This would be full-time

BEN: No

ELSA: Can you tell me about some of your previous clients?

BEN: [quietly] Trevor would be my first client.

ELSA: [sigh] Oh… I’d asked them to only send people with experience.

BEN: Oh, um … No, I have the certificate. I took the– it’s a six-week course.

ELSA: Yeah, I’ve taken it. It’s all right. It’s just that I specified that we–

[TREVOR moaning]

BEN: Hello. I’m sorry. You know, I’m so sorry. Did I do something wrong? I put on aftershave this morning. That’s something I don’t normally do. Is he sensitive to smells?

ELSA: [yelling] Trevor, that’s enough.

TREVOR: Pick a number between one and 3,500.

BEN: Wha–? Huh?

TREVOR: It’s a game. Pick a number.

BEN: Three

TREVOR: Nope. Two thousand, four hundred and sixty-four. Sorry, no job.

ELSA: Trevor, this is Ben. Do you have any actual questions for him?

TREVOR: What kind of aftershare are you wearing?

ELSA: Trevor?

TREVOR: What? [chuckles]. This guy thinks retarded people get upset by aftershare. That’s brilliant. How does that work, exactly? Is it, like, “Oh, no.[sniffs] The smell. I don’t understand where it’s coming from. Please, somebody help.”

ELSA: You’re not retarded. And don’t use that word. People worse off than you, you know?

TREVOR: That’s true. Like retarded people that are forced to wear aftershave.

ELSA and TREVOR snicker

ELSA: Sorry. My child has a unique sense of humor. Do you have kids?

BEN: No. I know I don’t have any experience, but I took the course and I’ll work very hard. I… I’ve been out of work for a while and I could really use this job.

TREVOR: Yeah, but if we’re gonna throw down nine bucks an hour for somebody to wipe my ass, we need somebody who knows how to wipe an ass. Tell me, Ben, given the opportunity, how exactly would you wipe my ass?

ELSA: [whispers to TREVOR] You’re being rude.

TREVOR: I think it’s a reasonable interview question, given the scope of the job. True or False? This man has to wipe my ass.

BEN: I’d wipe it in such a way that when I was done, there would be no shit left on your ass.

[Long Pause]

TREVOR: He’s the one.

We don’t find out till later that Ben was a writer and has been retired for the past 3 years because his son died. His wife wants a divorce and Ben just can’t bring himself to sign the papers. We find out in a flashback that Ben’s son’s death was an accident but Ben feels responsible.

Ben’s backstory drives the way he looks, acts, and talks. It’s even the reason he wanted to become a caregiver, after taking the 6 week class and learning all about ALOHA.

Ben starts out quiet. Somber. His answers are short. Elsa does most of the talking. She’s British, a single mom. She talks fast. Wants to get to the heart of the matter. She sounds exhausted and you soon find out why.

Trevor’s first interaction with Ben is to moan and groan. Ben immediately starts to apologize. He is startled but not freaked out. This is Trevor. He’s a prankster. He’s also British and the words he uses, like “brilliant”, are in character but he’s a little off. He also uses “gonna throw down”, which is not British but more young adult. The interaction goes on and Ben proves that he won’t be pushed around. The last bit of dialogue by Ben is like “kid, don’t mess with me. I need this job and the money. I’ll do whatever it takes to land it.”

From this first scene, we learn that Ben’s somber yet won’t be pushed around. Elsa is a tired, single mom who wants to find the right caregiver, and Trevor, is a prankster that is irreverent and chews caregivers up and spits them out.

As the movie goes on, the relationship between Ben and Trevor develops. One scene is Ben saying he loves time with Trevor after wiping is ass. Another one is when Ben is putting Trevor to sleep and asks him if he was all better, what would he want to do:

Time 13:20

BEN: If you woke up one day and were totally fine … what would you want to do?

TREVOR: If I could do anything at all? I’d really like to take a pee standing up.

BEN: Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

[BEN and TREVOR Laugh]

This short exchange is what you would expect both of them to say. It’s authentic and based on each character’s backstory/subtext. It’s spot on.

There are countless exchanges like this between Ben and Trevor. What they say to each other is not only in character but also slowly reveals their past of each of them.

We finally get a glimpse of Ben’s past in a scene with Elsa and Ben in the kitchen (at Time 19:20). Elsa tells Ben she knows what happened to his son. She also reveals that Trevor knows as well. It’s a tense scene and Ben’s clearly upset that Trevor has not told him he knows. It then leads to them confronting each other (Time 21:10). The exchange is quick and reveals more of who they both are. It’s also when both Ben and Trevor challenge each other to do more with their lives. Both are stuck in a rut.

Trevor’s comment about “you’re a writer” and “I want to see a second draft” is exactly what we would expect Trevor to say.

That exchange leads to the next scene in the morning where the road trip is discussed. Without the tension and words that Ben used the night before, the subtext of this scene between Elsa, Ben, and Trevor would not work. Ben thinks he’s going to get yelled at but it turns out, Trevor wants to go on the road trip. It’s a perfect redirect and what each character would say down to Elsa’s “to the T.”

Now we’re on the road and the road is “living the dream” which brings us a whole other set of dialogue, well, for the road. The first bathroom scene gives us a glimpse of what the road will be like for Ben and Trevor. The dialogue is quick and crude but endearing just like when Trevor first meets Dot.

Time 29:49

DOT: Cool fucking sneakers

TREVOR: [awkward pause] Mall

The cool and collected Trevor, with the sharp wit in front of Ben says a single word in front of a cute young women, who is sassy and confident. Yeah, that’s exactly what Trevor would do and the conversation in the car after, is exactly what you would expect Ben would say to Trevor about it.

We see Dot again and knowing the first interaction, we get the sense of what’s going to happen by how she talks to Ben when he approaches her. She’s a no nonsense young women who says it like it is. That’s what we would expect. She’s also says what others won’t say and that make Ben and Trevor uncomfortable. Dot even calls Ben Mervin. The car conversation gives a lot of Dot’s background quickly.

The same goes for when the pick up Peaches. The dialogue between Ben and Trevor is what you would expect from “friends” and now Dot throws in the zingers of comic relief like “they’re idiots” and Peaches say “okay.” That reveals that Peaches just goes with the flow and is happy to be along for the ride.

Time 57:06. Ben helps Trevor get ready for his date and Ben can’t find Trevor’s meds. The scene starts out slow and then builds to the climax that it was a joke. The exchange after is priceless as well. In character for both of them.

Time 1:08:43. Trevor leaves after he sees his father. Ben chances after him. Trevor is upset as he should be. His father rejects him. Ben tries to comfort him but Trevor wants nothing to do with it. In this exchange, you can see things coming to a head.

TREVOR: No, you — Listen, you’re not my father. Okay? You’re not my father.

BEN: I know.

TREVOR: Do you? Let me ask you something. Why’d you become a caregiver?

BEN: I needed a job.

TREVOR: Well, there are a lot of jobs out there that don’t involve taking care of a kid.

BEN: I didn’t know you were a kid when I went for the interview. What do you think –? You think I’m looking for redemption through you? You think I want you to fix me? Is that it? My son died. You can’t fix me.

TREVOR: And I don’t want to. Okay? So, you keep your problems over there and I’ll keep my problems over here. You wipe my ass, and I’ll say thank you. End of fucking story.

It’s a powerful scene with Ben’s line “My son died. You can’t fix me” as Ben finally admitting to himself that maybe he needs to move on since it will never be the way it used to be.

These examples are just a few of the stellar dialogue that the characters set and setting along with their subtext or backstory driving the dialogue. You can also see, again, that a lot of the dialogue is within the beats of a scene, which means it’s important to look at the subtext of each character as the scene progresses. What a character might say at the beginning of a scene might change as the scene progresses beat by beat.

Kim: How—How is the story being told that makes it effective (or ineffective)?

Life Values. Which specific elements, actions, dialogue that transmit the life values. I’m looking for something tangible I can point to and model after and I’m looking for the initial set up in the BH and how it conveys the change across the story spine.

First we need to define our Life Value Range by getting as specific as possible. This can take some work and I highly recommend talking it out with another story nerd and looking at other examples of the genre to get a handle on what’s really going. Along with this story, Leslie and I talked about My Fair Lady, Remains of the Day, Harold & Maude. Here’s what we came of up with:

  • Meaning found within one’s self
  • Meaning found outside one’s self (another person or thing)
  • Pursuit of meaning (cognitive dissonance)
  • Open to possibility of meaning (cognitive dissonance)
  • Challenge for meaning (cognitive dissonance)
  • Meaninglessness
  • Meaninglessness disguised as meaning

Then we want to look at the movement of the story and see which Life Values are in play and how we know. This can be a very “chicken or the egg” kind of analysis, so remember flailing is okay and just keep going. Leslie asked some really great questions about what the external events mean to the protagonist to determine how they affect his internal experience.

  • Beginning Hook:
    • Ben & Trevor both seem to begin at Meaninglessness Disguised as Meaning. Ben’s life previously had meaning through being a parent, and that seems to be the only way he knows how to have meaning, so because he can’t do that, he finds a substitute in being a caregiver. Trevor lives a sheltered life of routine that he refuses to alter in any way (only eats sausages and waffles, only goes to the park, only once a week) believing it keeps him safe and is all he is really capable of.
    • Through their interactions over the BH, they shift out of this with Challenges for Meaning (Ben asks Trevor what he would do if he wasn’t stuck in that chair), Elsa talks to Ben regarding his son and asks him not to get too close to Trevor, and Trevor and Ben have an argument about it.
    • By the end of the BH, Trevor has told his mom he wants to go on a trip to see the World’s Deepest Pit, and Ben agrees to help him make it happen. This is a shift to Possible Meaning.
  • Middle Build:
    • As they travel, Ben continues to challenge Trevor to try new things (Slim Jim, talk girls, etc.). They meet and invite Dot to join them shifting from Possible Meaning to Pursuit of Meaning. There is a poignant midpoint moment where Trevor watches Dot through the window while she’s smoking while the Leonard Cohen song “I’m Your Man” plays.
    • This upward movement continues when they pick up 8-month pregnant Peaches.
    • Trevor and Dot go on a date to the diner where Ben watches him out the window and Peaches asks him what it’s like to be a parent. He says, “It’s the only reason we’re here.” This is an indication that Ben has not found a new definition of meaning for himself and if Finding Meaning In Another, by helping Trevor.
    • Dot gets Trevor to eat French toast instead of waffles. He seems to be nearing the Meaning Found Within Another, but it’s not solid yet.
    • When Trevor meets his father and learns that his mom is the one who wrote the letters, and when his dad tries to offer him money, Trevor falls to Meaninglessness. This trip and this pursuit has become meaningless and everything Ben has tried to do for Trevor is meaningless. Their relationship is relegated back to client and caregiver, leaving Ben at Meaninglessness, too.
    • Peaches asks if they’re still going to the Pit and Trevor says “No”, to which Ben replies “Whatever”. Then Dot speaks up and calls bullshit and tells everyone they’re going. So they continue the journey but it doesn’t mean anything for Ben or Trevor anymore.
  • Ending Payoff:
    • They reach the pit and it’s enormous and beautiful. Trevor says he thought it would be cool because it was lame but it’s actually pretty cool. This shifts the mood for everyone and seems to move the life value to Possible Meaning.
    • They take the path to the bottom of the Pit where Peaches goes into labor, Ben has to assist her in delivery, which he is terrified of but does anyway. All this points to Pursuit of Meaning
    • This is the moment of Climax for Ben, when he relives his full memory of losing his son and it returns to him laughing. This seems to indicate he is no longer stuck (lost, frustrated, confused) but is free to live and move. He seems to have Found Meaning Within Himself.
    • Trevor has to say goodbye to Dot who has decided to continue traveling with her dad, and his Meaning Found Within Another is at risk. Just as Ben’s meaning was defined by being a parent, Trevor’s meaning seems to have been defined by being chosen by a woman. Recognizing this, Ben, now at his best, sees an opportunity to help Trevor Find Meaning Within Himself by rigging up an orange stretcher from some paramedics to help Trevor pee standing up all by himself into the World’s Deepest Pit.

One tool I’m finding useful for this exercise is something Valerie and I have been working on for a Fundamental Friday’s post on Progressive Complications: listing the tools, obstacles, irrelevancies that are actually set ups. This is a great way to get specific and concrete about “What’s on the page” to determine if your story really is conveying what you want. You can identify things that are working, missing, or distracting from what you want the reader to focus on.

Ending. What is the emotional feeling that resonates with the audience at the end? Is the story satisfying? What makes it so? (Note that although my three films this season are prescriptive tales, satisfying is not synonymous with positive  ending.) Would I have told it any differently?

  • Heartwarming satisfaction and delight.
  • Because we have dual protagonists, we experience two different climactic scenes, one for each. Ben’s climactic moment of delivering the baby & Trevor’s climactic moment of peeing standing up. This is followed by a resolution scene of Ben writing again, about Trevor up to his usual antics.
  • I enjoy a solid resolution. No need to duplicate the multiple multiple resolution scenes of Lord of the Rings Return of the King but enough to soak up the feels. The ending of The Silver Linings Playbook film had an additional scene added.
  • In our Coco episode, Anne mentioned Larry Brooks “Resolution Moments”

External Genres. Which External Genres are used? Does the story have one strong external genre that acts like a copilot, multiple interwoven external genres that act like subplots, or something else? Also, are there any recurring patterns or strong pairings we can identify?

  • Main story between Ben & Trevor
    • Buddy Love-Courtship (Love & Hate)

Anne: Can I just jump in here with a comment? It’s a buddy comedy. That isn’t really a “love story” by romantic definitions. We need a category for “friendship” stories. I resist the notion that any two characters who meet and get to know and respect each other must be a kind of love-story-with-parts-missing.

    • Action-Adventure (Life & Death)

Anne: Do you feel like the chance of Ben’s forgetting some critical aspect of Trevor’s care is enough to constitute life and death stakes in this story?

I ask because while this seems like a clear-cut kind of adventure story, it doesn’t feel predicated on life/death stakes. Do you feel like the chance of Ben’s forgetting some critical aspect of Trevor’s care is enough to constitute life and death stakes in this story? Is “risk of death,” however remote, sufficient for an Action/Adventure story? Because after all, there are plenty of Action/Adventure stories for children that don’t go to the edge of death.

Kim

  • Subplots
    • Love-Courtship between Trevor and Dot
    • Action-Adventure for Peaches and Baby Elton
    • Love-Marriage between Ben and his wife

Why—why is the story being told? Why does it matter?

Why does this kind of story exist? Why does this specific internal subgenre exist as a pattern we can recognize? Why do we–humanity–need it? It’s unlikely I’ll be able to answer this one completely today, but I think we can start down the right path. This is the meta-meta-meta story, the theme / controlling idea that transcends genre to just being human., which for me is what stories are all about.

  • What is the controlling idea/theme for this story/genre?
      • Meaning is found when we look for it within ourselves, rather than in people and things outside of ourselves, and when we help others do the same.
  • Any theories or take aways on why humanity needs this/how it functions for us as a society?
    • Life really can be a shit show. Shit happens and what we can lose our previously working definitions of meaning. Think of all the big life changing events and the inevitable cognitive dissonance that comes with that. Having to move, divorce, death of a parent, death of a child, death of a spouse, sometimes even small things like when your best friend gets married or has a child before you do. A career change, empty-nesters. All of these are moments that force us to reconsider our definition of meaning and our own role of significance in the world. Meaning seems to be intricately connected with our identity.
    • So we need stories that serve as models for how other people have handled it and if that worked or not, resonates for us or not. These are fundamentally prescriptive tales, so it’s important that what a story prescribes be authentic. The audience will know if it’s not.

Anne: I’d like to comment on the similarity between this film and Manchester By The Sea. Both stories feature a father who has lost his family through an accident or mistake he made.

As author Pauline Boss says in an interview with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast, “There is no such thing as closure.” We have to live with loss. CLIP “My son died. You can’t fix me.” (1:09:19)

The podcast episode is called “The Myth of Closure” and one of Boss’s key points is that the strangely American or maybe Western cultural insistence on “getting over it” is wrong. You don’t get over something like what Ben in this story has suffered. You don’t go through five stages and come out the other side back to normal after enduring something like what Lee in Manchester By The Sea has endured. In fact, Boss makes a point of saying that the Kubler-Ross change curve only really applies to people facing their own terminal diagnosis.

The rest of us, until then, have to live with loss. Grieving may fade, but it never ends. We’re changed by it.

Though a much lighter and happier story than Manchester By The Sea, The Fundamentals of Caring rests on a similar foundation, I believe the point of both stories, at some level, is that loss, tragedy and sorrow visit us all, and we need stories about how to go on living.

Jarie: The line that sums it all up why we need these stories is by Elsa: There are people who have it worse than you. This is why we need these stories and talk about the real human aspects of loss and grief. It’s important to get out of your own private pity party and live life knowing that love and loss come together.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Julie Warren. Julie asks for a spreadsheet detailing all aspects of the Worldview Maturation subgenre, and is having trouble finding the resources she needs on the Story Grid site.

Anne: Hi Julie. Thank you for the kind words, and thanks for the question. It’s an opportunity for us to sum up how we’ve been structuring this podcast and our related show notes.

  1. In Season One, we filled out a Global Foolscap Worksheet for each of the 13 movies we analyzed. Each foolscap is a tab on this spreadsheet. They’re all labeled by genre and film title.
  2. With Season Two we began including the Foolscap in the show notes, rather than maintaining a separate spreadsheet. If you go to storygrid.com and click on Resources, you’ll find a heading for Editors Roundtable Podcast. There, every one of our episodes is listed. If you don’t see the global genre listed in the blurb, you’ll usually find it called out early in the show notes themselves.
  3. By the time we got to Season Three, we decided to stop providing the full Foolscap for every movie. After 25 rounds, we felt justified in hoping that our listeners were beginning to get the hang of it.

However, you’ll find that most of the Foolscap questions are answered in the body of the show notes.

  1. Editor Rachelle Ramirez has written detailed Fundamental Fridays blog posts on each of the content genres. Each post includes every subgenre, and the obligatory scenes and conventions, and lists additional masterworks you can study.

The most heartfelt part of the answer is that there is no substitute for analyzing a few stories for yourself, especially if you can join with a group of fellow story nerds. It’s a difficult brain change to make, but it’s amazing when you feel it happen. When it does, the giant orb of Story will open up and really begin to reveal its secrets to you.

I hope this information will help you make some steps in that direction. Thanks for a great question.

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

Join us next time when Anne continues her deep dive into non-linear storytelling with a look at the choose-your-own-adventure “Bandersnatch” (an episode from Black Mirror).

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.
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Author Leslie Watts

2 Comments

Jack Lewis says:

This episode and the one before it on The Shawshank Redemption are getting a lot of play lately during my hour commute to and from the pesky day job. I’m constantly pausing to switch to the audio recorder app on my phone when one of your comments generates a new wrinkle for my own WIP.

And.special thanks for Friedman’s Framework. I have shamelessly copied and pasted it wholesale into my OneNote app from the story notes. Handy as a pocket on a shirt.

The RT editors are firing on all cylinders, I’ll tell you what! Your tireless forays into the wilderness that is Storytelling in order to bring back the Elixer … if that ain’t a Hero’s Journey then I’m the proverbial monkey’s uncle.

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ANNE HAWLEY says:

Very kind of you to say, Jack. We all love doing the podcast and we’ve all grown a lot in our story knowledge, so we’d probably keep doing it no matter what, but it makes a huge difference to know that you value our work.

Thanks for letting us know!

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