Editor Roundtable: The Girl in the Book

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This week, Kim pitched The Girl in the Book as a great example of Story that doesn’t entirely work. This 2015 American drama film written and directed by Marya Cohn in her directorial debut.

The Story

Kim: I have a lot of thoughts about the genre of this story, not many of which are cut and dry. I am really looking forward to insights from everyone else on this. So I’m going to give you the summary first and then I’ll walk through my current interpretation of the genres at play. 

  • Beginning Hook – When Alice is assigned to oversee the re-launch of a bestselling novel of the man, Milan, who exploited her as a teen, she must decide whether to stay on the project or have her boss reassign it and lose her leverage on a manuscript she is advocating. After interacting with Milan in person, Alice asks her friend Sadie to help her with the launch so she doesn’t have to do it alone. 
  • Middle Build – Alice meets Emmett at her surprise birthday party and they begin a relationship. But when Alice sleeps with the babysitter, and when Emmett finds out he wants nothing to do with her. Alice falls into old patterns of one night stands until she dreams of the physical abuse by Milan, which makes her reach out begin to make amends.
  • Ending Payoff – Alice begins to get her life in order, but when Milan reveals his new dedication for the book (the poem he wrote her) it causes her to relive the moment when she disclosed to her mother what Milan had done to her, but her parents side with Milan. The memory incites her to decide whether to confront Milan or continuing living in shame. She confronts him, and though he tries to gaslight her, she makes peace with the truth, reunites with Emmett, and begins writing her true story: The Girl in the Book.

The Genre

External Genres at Play

Esteem tank stuff

  • Performance-Business and Performance-Art
  • Society-Women’s/Disenfranchised

Love tank stuff

  • Love-Courtship subplot

Internal Genres at Play

Esteem tank stuff

  • Status-Pathetic in the past

Transcendence tank stuff

  • Morality-Testing-Triumph in the present

But what is the Global genre? For me it feels like the story is about our choice to step out of our self-destruction and channel our pain for the good of others, so I am calling it a Morality-Testing-Triumph story. 

There’s an argument to be made for Status-Sentimental as well, but I think Alice is sophisticated enough at this point in her life to be in the transcendence tank. There were several moments in the story that made this stand out for me and pointed to the selfishness/altruism LVs of Alice is knowingly withholding her gift, refusing to get the help she knows she needs, but later, she shifts to owning her choices, taking positive action, and giving her gift willingly. Not unlike Ove’s transformation in A Man Called Ove. I’ve found these kinds of stories are very important to me. I’m very interested in the points in time when we become accountable for sharing our gift, despite external circumstances.

The Principle

So I actually love this film. It works for me in so many ways, and I actually use it as a masterwork for myself and several of my clients. I find it particularly excellent when it comes to executing dual timelines (past and present) and the internal arc of our protagonist. I’ll never forget the first time I watched it–the protagonist’s arc was so clear. And I distinctly saw an internal arc for her in the past timeline (Status-Pathetic) and a different arc in the present (Morality-Testing-Triumph). I find the ending extremely satisfying. 

So why have I chosen it as an example of a story that doesn’t work? There are a couple things that don’t quite work for me in the ending payoff: certain aspects of the love story subplot, but mostly the core event scene when Alice confronts Milan. It was completely unsatisfying to me when I saw it and I was frustrated and annoyed by it on so many levels. 

I wanted to dig deeper into what bothered me so much about a story that moved me in so many ways and has inspired aspects of my own work. I must get to the bottom of what works and what doesn’t and WHY. And for that, I needed my Roundtable nerds. And I am really looking forward to what they have to say. 

For my contribution today, I wanted to look closer at the Core Event and Core Emotion, to try to figure out what bugged me about that scene, and other aspects of the ending payoff, and how I would have rather experienced it.

What is a Core Event? 

(Links to Discover Your Story’s Emotional Core & Battle Your Way to an Explosive Core Event)

We touched on this last week in the Love Story episode. The Core Event is when the global life values are most at stake. It’s the height of core emotional tension. Whether we realize it or not, the Core Emotions are the reason we are so attracted to a particular story. Core emotions are the specific type of experience that we crave. So we have several key story principles that are tightly connected here.

And I would say each begets the other: the Universal Human Need is represented by the spectrum of Life Values, the moment when these life values are most at stake is the Core Event, and that tension of stakes produces the Core Emotion. 

All four of these principles are wrapped up in your chosen Genre, which is why once you can figure that out, you are well on your way to crafting a story that works–a story that satisfies the expectations of your audience. 

What is also interesting is that, for writers, when you know one of those four things you can pretty well reverse engineer for the others. It’s the proverbial “you know X now solve for Y”. I was talking with a client this week who struggles with the “What’s your genre?” question being the   first thing we are “supposed” to answer. He said, “I don’t know how to think about it that way.” He always begins with a character, and that character is struggling with something / wants something (a situation), and then he starts imagining possible scenes and off he goes. Trying to “name the genre precisely throws” him off. I think this is more common than we often talk about. I know for writers like myself and my clients who are globally focused on internal change, it can be hard to “pin down” the change our character is ultimately going through. 

But what my client and I were able to talk through was that the character’s wants and needs are directly related to the Human Needs Tanks and the Life Values spectrum we use to represent them. The “genre names” are basically placeholders for these items. And because we have Story Grid tools and methodology, we know the Core Event and Core Emotion, but we could solve for it as well. 

If you know the Life Values, you work out the moment in the story when these are most at stake (the tension is the highest) and then they shift. The turning point moment of the Core Event scene is a CRUCIAL moment in the story. It is what generates the height of Core Emotion for the audience. If it doesn’t work, meaning the audience doesn’t experience that Core Emotion (their expectations are left unsatisfied) and nothing is quite so disappointing as that. 

In last week’s film, Love Story, I was not satisfied by the ending payoff, because for me it didn’t produce the Core Emotion which is Romance. You know, that swirl in your stomach that makes your heart ache in the best way.

So let’s look at our scene in question for The Girl in the Book.

Before we listen to it, let’s think about the Core Event scene in the context of the global story. It is the big payoff of reader expectations that have been building over the course of the story. So all of the setups that lead to this moment are very important as well. The Core Event will be one of the 15 core scenes, but there is not guarantee which specific scene it will be. I’d guess for it to be a Turning Point or a Climax of the MB or EP, but this is where you as the writer will bring your creativity and innovation. 

Scene – Alice confronts Milan – (01:17:16 – 01:19:36)

[Alice arrives at Milan’s house]

Milan: Hey. What are you doing here?

[Alice enters and passes by him]

Milan: Are you okay? Alice? Are you all right? 

[Alice walks into his house and looks around. Sees his desk and rifles through the papers]

Milan: Oh, please, please. It’s, um.

Alice: It’s the new book?

Milan: Yeah.

Alice: Whose life did you appropriate this time?

Milan: No one

[Alice gives him a knowing look]

Milan: Uh, well, there’s bits and pieces here and there. You know what I mean?

Alice: Yeah. Yeah. (laughter)

[Her gaze hardens and she holds her stare]

Milan: It was such a long time ago.

Alice: What? What was such a long time ago?

Milan: Alice.

Alice: Concrete details. You must give me concrete details to make it real.

Milan: I know at that age, little things seem enormous.

Alice: Your warm heavy arms around me. The smoky taste of your tongue in my mouth. 

Milan: I was helping you. 

Alice: The feel of your hard-on against my thigh.

Milan: But nothing really happened. 

Alice: Yes, it did!

Kim: Okay everything up to this point is great. I love it. But the rest of this interaction just falls completely flat for me. It halts what was a very cathartic emotional experience and leaves us with hollow words that don’t carry the impact we need them to.

Milan: Yes, well, you seemed to enjoy it at the time. 

Alice: You were one of the few people who ever actually seemed to see me. To make me feel real and important. 

Milan: But you are

Alice: You used me. 

Milan: Oh, come on.

Alice: You abandoned me. 

Milan: Alice–

Alice: You made me feel like I was nothing all over again.

Milan: Not nothing. It’s … it’s a beautiful character. 

Alice: I know. And I’ve been living in her shadow for 15 years. Goodbye, Milan

I’ve watched this scene A LOT of times now, and I talked it out with my husband to try to get to the bottom of why it left me so frustrated. And I think it’s that she starts to take her power back but then it’s like she surrenders it again. She doesn’t hold firm to the truth and refuse to back down.

She mentions that he used her and abandoned her and how hurtful that was, but she ignores concrete details like, “I was a kid, I was a lonely vulnerable kid and you saw that and you took advantage, on purpose. You should have never been allowed to touch me. You stole from me and then you lied about it.” Maybe this would be considered by some to be too on the nose, but I feel like in this moment we need some force, some strong clear language that he can’t gaslight. 

And then when she says, “You made me feel like nothing all over again,” and he says, “Not nothing. It’s a beautiful character,” her response is, “I know. And I’ve been living her shadow for fifteen years.” This line is completely non-compelling for me. I want her to say, “I am not a character. I am a real person. Open your eyes because I will not be ignored anymore.”

As written, it feels like she lets him off the hook.

Now I still find the story extremely satisfying and there are other moments that follow this scene which bolster the Core Emotion of [Pride and Empowerment] that fizzles for me in the Core Event. 

  • The moment when Emmett recognizes “You’re the girl in the book aren’t you?” and she says, “Not anymore.”
  • And, of course, when she begins writing her story at the end: The Girl in the Book. 

This is such a moment of triumph and a tangible way she retakes her power, which is so powerful. Talk about a BIG META WHY. I see the controlling idea of this story as: We retake our power from those who’ve oppressed us when we choose to stop hiding, own the truth, and share our gift.

Anne – Does a “literary” story have to follow all the rules? 

I’m glad to go before Leslie and Valerie, since my thoughts about this story simply aren’t as definite as theirs. My experience of this film was powerful. I thought it mostly worked—90%—and though I have no argument with most of what everyone else will be calling out as non-working, I want to look a bit at why those things didn’t bother me, and give a couple of thoughts about how closely a “literary” story needs to adhere to strict story structure in order to work. Under the heading of literary story, I also include indie or art-house or film-festival films like this one.

I need to start by saying that I spent the whole day before yesterday in a truly wonderful workshop by Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Vogler is the guy who famously translated Joseph Campbell’s mythological studies into a seven-page memo that swept the Disney studios and has resulted in a whole lot of big movies with plots that are, on the one hand, satisfying and on the other hand, arguably predictable.

Now, it was a fabulous class, and I came away with a deep admiration for Mr Vogler. I love his book and refer to it often—it’s the second most-thumbed book on my shelf of writing books, after The Story Grid

Vogler’s emphasis throughout the day was on the almost spiritual power of story, with an interesting new focus on showmanship. He revealed some of his research on the methods which various experts—all men, going back to the ancient Greeks—have come up with to evoke emotion, engagement, and satisfaction in the audience. He laid special emphasis on Vaudeville impresarios, who knew how to send the crowds home happy. Vogler is a Hollywood guy, and his speciality is big, popular movies. 

So the course made a fascinating juxtaposition with today’s film. 

This is not a showy story. To the extent that it has an external genre, I think it’s Society, which can feel more internal when the story is set in the domestic and women’s subgenres. It’s all about men’s power over a woman, and the core event is when she finally throws off the gaslighting and begins to seize her power back. 

It has a distinctly literary feel, and it sits right on the uneasy borderline where memoir meets fiction. It’s no secret that Marya Cohn, the writer and director, lived some aspect of this story in her own life. The film probably began life as her own attempt to exorcise her experience of abuse in youth at the hands of a celebrated novelist. 

I frequently repeat that stories aren’t real life, and characters aren’t real people, and that as writers we have to be willing to sacrifice some objective facts about life and people in order to tell a story that reveals a subjective truth. 

I suspect the writer of this film chose to include factual material from her experience in a couple of places where subjective truth would have given us a more fully satisfying story. Let me see if I can set this up and find solutions that I think would still contain the core truth.

For me, the core truth of this film is how difficult it is for a woman to take back her own power when the sexual abuse she’s suffered has been condoned or dismissed by the authority figures of her youth. I won’t go into a scene by scene analysis to support this conclusion, except to say that I could easily see many key scenes turning on values of power and impotence. Young Alice ends by running away–her only available act of power. Adult Alice gradually moves from giving in, to being passive-aggressive, to owning her mistakes and trying to face her faults, to finally revolting against her oppressors, father and abuser alike.

Valerie: That’s a key point Anne. I agree with you that this is the core truth of the film. And when storytellers have such an important issue to explore, nailing the fundamentals of storytelling—that is, the Editors Six Core Questions—is essential. These are the tools in the writer’s toolbox that will ensure the audience stays engaged and gets the point.

Anne: Yes! Staying engaged and getting the point—otherwise why are we telling a story at all? 

Kim is right when she points out that the core event scene is kind of ruined by the second part of the dialogue, when Alice says a few too many things to Milan before dismissing him from her life. This is exactly where I feel that Marya Cohn, the writer, left in some factual real-life material.

Milan, in common with a lot of real-life abusers, tries the tactic of reducing his offenses by saying, “nothing really happened,” presumably because in his mind anything short of actual penetration counts as nothing. This is a view that Alice has probably shared for 15 years: Why is her life so screwed up when “Nothing Really Happened”? 

Her act of power is shouting “Yes it did!” with total conviction.

So Milan has to try the next cheap trick. “You seemed to enjoy it.”

And rather than dropping back at that, admitting defeat–because physically she did enjoy it; we witnessed that disturbing scene–Alice fires back. She explains why she opened up to him emotionally, why she let him do what he did: because he made her feel seen.

Her answer makes sense, and exposes a fact about the issue at the heart of this social problem of rape culture: that a bodily response to stimulation doesn’t make rape okay, and that just because there was no specific penetration, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a form of rape or sexual assault. But it deflates the scene because countering Milan’s statement at all is handing power back to him. She falls for his trick.

The response Alice should have made is this: “I was 14. You were 40. It was wrong, period. Own it, you asshole.” 

The core event would have rung much truer that way, even it would have meant leaving out some of the important subjective facts about rape culture. The truth for me, personally, was cemented by the two lines, “Nothing really happened.” “Yes, it did!”

Memoir writers struggle with facts versus truth all the time, but it’s a problem for fiction writers too: I’ve had a number of clients say they can’t make such-and-such a change because within the world they’re building, that change wouldn’t be “true.” My answer is always, “You’re the god of your story. You can change things so that the universal truth you’re aiming at shines through.”

And as long as I’m fixing this story, there’s one other repair I’d like to make: the love story. I think we all agree on this. The idea that a good boyfriend is going to fix her is just offensive, and I really felt like some producer forced Marya Cohn to write that in.

I would rearrange a few scenes this way: Alice’s pathetic blog attempt does not work on Emmett. He’s wise and strong enough to send her on her way, maybe advising her to get help. No take-backs–she broke trust and betrayed him, he can’t fix her, and they’re done.

Then she goes to Milan and has the core event scene, seizing her power. Then she starts her life afresh, without any men in it for a while, and begins her memoir.

Frankly, I’d have loved a coda where her memoir comes out, and some other women writers come forward with accusations of plagiarism, or sexual abuse, or both, and Milan gets cancelled, and we see his book being pulled from bookstores, and maybe Agent Dad starts losing clients too. 

Now that would have been a fully satisfying story of impotence, power, and revolution.

Still, The Girl In the Book, as it was, worked for me, because at least it let me envision the possibility of that ending by showing me some powerful subjective truths about a social problem that has affected me and pretty much every woman I know. Sometimes, I can let a story off the Story Grid hook a little when it accomplishes great things despite its faults.

Leslie – POV/Narrative Device 

As I mentioned last week, if the genre is what your story is about, then the POV/narrative device is how you tell the story. 

John Truby talks about how once the writer has a premise (a person in a setting with a problem), it’s important to identify the problems and challenges are presented by such a story. He talks about how these ideas are embedded within the idea and how they help the writer find their true story (and I would argue how to present it) and what he calls the designing principle, or how you tell the story. What’s really promising about this is that the seeds of how to tell the story in the best way can be found within its major problems. (See Anatomy of a Story)

If we look at The Girl in the Book, what’s the premise? A young woman in the publishing industry who struggles to write her own stories has been asked to manage the relaunch of a book written about her by her abuser.

What are the major problems presented by this premise? The writer needs to show the lasting impact of abuse on the people who experience it, and the present story makes sense only in light of what happened in the past—if we’re shown the present events only, we wouldn’t understand why Alice struggles the way she does). We can’t cover the relevant past events in a brief prologue, but if told in a linear story, the inciting incident would happen closer to the middle of the running time. Before we talk about how Marya Cohn solved this problem, let’s look at the story and how it’s presented. 

What’s the experience? Sequences of events from the present story are interwoven with flashbacks from a specific time in Alice’s past. The technique is well executed in this film, and I’ll come back to that later. 

Is it a Cautionary or Prescriptive tale? My takeaway is that the story is both prescriptive for survivors of abuse and cautionary for parents and mentors of young people. More on that below.

What’s the Narrative Device or Situation? I admit this is highly subjective—you’ll notice I say, “it feels like” or “ it appears to be” because we don’t have an overt narrative situation from the beginning, though some clues are present within the story. You may experience the narrative device differently. 

If I had to guess, I would say that Marya Cohn had a very specific narrative situation in mind, and that specificity accounts for the narrative’s consistency and the way it supports the story we’re being told. In this case, to get at what I think the narrative device is, I need to look for clues in the POV—as Kim rightly mentioned, when it comes to story, we use what we know to figure out what we don’t know. 

What’s the POV? In a film, without an overt narrative device, we’re not always certain what the POV is. It’s clear in The Princess Bride (we’re shown the third person framing story of a grandfather telling his sick grandson a story) and in Bridget Jones’s Diary (the voiceover lets us know it’s a first person account). In this story, it feels like a third person narrative. This narrating entity seems very close to the experience, but someone with perspective, so a narrator as witness, rather than protagonist. This doesn’t feel like a first-person contemporaneous account, from Alice’s diary or journal, of what happens when her boss gives her the worst possible assignment.  

The narrating entity appears to be someone friendly—not judgmental—but dedicated to presenting the unvarnished truth. My initial thought was that this narrative is like that of a friend who can see Alice and her behavior clearly. Someone like Sadie, but of course there are events that Sadie doesn’t observe. She could be filling in the gaps as narrators sometimes do, but the events also seem to be based on what Alice experiences.

Anne: There’s a key scene at about 24 minute, where Adult Alice is reading Milan’s book in the bathroom, as an escape from her unwanted surprise 29th birthday party. As she reads, there’s a flashback. We see Young Alice lying face down on her bed, reading, with Milan lounging against the headboard, gazing at her from behind. Alice could not have witnessed that longing gaze. The point of view is strongly Milan’s in that moment, and it’s as if Adult Alice is reading the scene in the book and reconstructing it, a memory within a memory, a nested set of points of view.

This was the scene that made me wish there really was a novel or memoir to read, because point of view and narrative device can do so much more in text than on film, and I honestly felt this movie would have been better as a novel. For one thing, the book could have contained passages from Milan’s novel and Young Alice’s journal, and made it clearer how he stole her writing as well as her innocence. I thought this point was a little glossed over in the film.

Leslie: That’s a fantastic example of specificity in narrative device and how it can be executed.

Given all of this, what can we conclude about the Narrative Device? In other words, who is telling the story, to whom, in what form, and when? 

Who and when? The analysis makes me think this is Alice’s coherent narrative of events she couldn’t put together and make sense of until after the fact, that this Alice’s objective narrative as a result of the perspective she gains with time. Her transformation allows her to apply her professional skills to her personal story. 

In what form? The form seems to be the piece Alice is writing at the end of the story, which appears to be a novel. 

In the beginning, it’s as if Alice is still stuck in the moment when she jumps out of the car, and she just keeps running. She becomes the girl in the book, and that position if not set in stone, is at least set in print for her. What’s in print is what’s real. The only way she can escape her “cycle of succumbing” is to write her way out. The final flashback is that pivotal moment when Alice gets out of the car, and from then on, the narrative runs chronologically in the story’s present. 

To whom? The reader of the book Alice is writing, and to me that’s where this idea of part prescriptive and part cautionary tale comes in. Readers who are survivors of abuse can use the story to realize that they too can share their individual gifts with the world, that they are not limited by what was done to them. The hard secondary lesson for parents and mentors is that if they are selfish and cannot recognize and support the expression of the individual gifts of vulnerable young people, predators might do that and try to take advantage. That is exactly how predators operate: they see the people they prey upon very clearly.

What’s the primary form of Narrative Drive? Assuming I’m right so far, I would say mystery and suspense: Mystery because character-Alice (as opposed to narrator-Alice) knows what happened in her past, though she’s still trying to make sense of it, and suspense because we’re in the same position as character-Alice in when it comes to what she will choose to do.

Takeaways for Writers

First, I want to mention that this story is a great example of flashbacks done well. The trouble with flashbacks is that they don’t move the story forward. They can only help us make sense of or see differently what is happening in the story’s present. To execute them effectively, we need a stimulus or cause in the present story for the flashback to arise, and another stimulus to bring us back to the story’s present. Flashbacks should follow the same cause and effect rules as the rest of the story. If movement between the past and present is random, then you might want to consider why you’re using the flashback. 

Consistently in this story there is a trigger that sends Alice into her memories of the past—usually in an attempt to make sense of what’s happening and what she should do. She gains a revelatory piece of information and then returns to the present where she makes a decision or sees her situation differently.

So what can we say about the Narrative Device in this story? As I think back over the story, I get an image of repairing a tear in a piece of fabric, where the past is on one side, and the present is on another, and the thread is a storyline that brings the two together in a coherent story. This is a particularly good choice for this story.

As I said last week, an effective narrative device can’t fix problems with content in the story, but how we tell the story is as important as what the story is. 

And this raises an interesting question, how good does your story need to be before you submit or publish it? This is a personal decision and especially challenging for writers who are constantly levelling up their craft. The skills we possess today are more advanced than the ones we possessed last year and not as advanced as the ones we’ll have next year. We analyze the stories here on the Roundtable and point out where we think they could be improved, as we might if the storyteller were our client. Few stories are perfectly executed, but many are great examples of their genres. At some point, as Seth Godin says, you must “merely ship,” or you’ll be stuck in limbo, much like Alice was. You get to decide when you think it’s good enough to ship. Thinking about how you define good enough, both in advance and as you work on your story, is a good thing.

Valerie – Objects of Desire

Ok, so we’re all zooming in on the issue of genre and tackling it from different angles. I’m in absolute agreement with what Kim, Anne and Leslie have said. I think this episode is really a Masterclass in why genre is the first thing a writer needs to nail. What story is it that you want to tell, and which of the genres will help you tell it best?

I’m going to approach the genre question from the perspective of the objects of desire. Anne is writing a whole book on this, so I encourage you to get it when it’s published next year. 

Earlier in this post, Anne said that “the core truth of this film is how difficult it is for a woman to take back her own power when the sexual abuse she’s suffered has been condoned or dismissed by the authority figures of her youth”, and I agree. Given that this is the case, it’s essential for the audience to have empathy for Alice. How do we develop empathy? On the macro level it’s through the hero’s journey. On the micro, scene-by-scene level, it’s through clearly articulated objects of desire. 

Empathy is the emotional connection we have to the protagonist and her story.

As a quick refresher: In a well-crafted story, a character will have both conscious wants and subconscious needs. The beginning hook global inciting incident gives rise to the character’s conscious want, and that want can shift over the course of the story. A character doesn’t have to get what she wants, but she must get what she needs. 

Beginning Hook: In The Girl in the Book, the beginning hook global inciting incident is that the re-release of Milan’s 15-year-old bestseller has been moved up several months, and Alice has been asked to manage the launch. From this opening scene we know that handling the launch is a problem for Alice, although we don’t know why. We also know that her boss doesn’t take her seriously as an acquiring editor; or as an editor at all (she’s more of a secretary). A conscious want has been stated: Alice wants her boss to read the manuscript. Why? Because she wants him to recognize that she is an editor, not a secretary. This is stated outright later in the film when we learn that she’s been an editor at the company for two years, but hasn’t edited a book yet. 

A subconscious need has also been established, and is reinforced as the story moves along. Alice needs to take back her power. She is being dominated by men at every turn and she needs to learn to stop giving her power away so easily; or rather, allowing her power to be taken away so easily.

As Kim said, from the first scene, it appears that we might be in for some kind of business performance story (whether that’s the global or secondary story is as yet unclear, but we’re in the ballpark). It feels like the movie will be about Alice’s triumph or failure at the workplace, and that outcome will depend on whether or not she regains her power. 

In terms of narrative drive, I’m asking myself: Will her boss read the book? Will Alice get the recognition she deserves?

Then, when we see that Alice is a woman out of control, additional questions come to mind. Since the beginning hook global inciting incident has planted the idea in my mind that this film is about Alice’s professional success or failure, I’m wondering how her behaviour will affect her efforts to achieve her object of desire. I’m wonder how her domineering father will affect them as well. 

By the end of the beginning hook, we know that Alice and Milan have a history together, and we can guess what it is. All kinds of questions come to mind. What exactly happened between them? How will Alice manage this launch? Will she confront him? Will she out him? Alice’s best friend reinforces the idea that this story will be about Alice and her career. She even says Alice’s job is not to manage book launches, but “to find and edit new and wonderful novels”. 

All-in-all, the beginning hook is very well crafted and sets viewers up for an emotional and riveting story. The objects of desire have been clearly established and the narrative drive is strong because there are dozens of questions in our minds and we can’t wait to see what happens.

Middle Build: In the middle build, we learn that Alice is a really a writer by nature. It was hinted at in the beginning hook, but now it’s a significant part of the story; we see her taking writing classes, learning from Milan, her friends ask about her writing and so does Emmett. This is one area where confusion starts to creep in. We’ve been introduced to Alice as an editor, but now we’re seeing that her dream was to be a writer. This dilutes the impact of the objects of desire that were stated off the top. If Alice doesn’t have a burning desire to be an editor, then we don’t have a burning desire to see her achieve her goal (which is getting her boss to read that manuscript so her editorial talents can be recognized). 

She says she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, but she isn’t writing. And we never see her doing much writing (in present day), well, except for the blog. The effect of this ambiguity about her conscious want is that we, as an audience, don’t know what we’re supposed to cheer for. Are we sad that she’s not writing? Or is that a good thing because her talent is really editing? Or, are we sad that she’s editing because her calling is to be a writer?

Furthermore, it distracts us from what this story is really about. 

Anne mentioned the love story with Emmett, and I agree that it falls flat. Why? Because at no point prior to his introduction, are we set up to believe that what Alice wants, or needs, is a relationship. In fact, we’re set up to think that she’s going to have a one-night stand with him. The love story subplot comes out of nowhere. She confesses love, but it doesn’t ring true to the audience—at least not to me. It’s clear that she enjoys hanging out with him and he’s definitely a good influence on her. But love? Her proof of love is what? Promising to be the woman she thinks he wants her to be? This is exactly the opposite of what the story is about.

Emmett challenges her to write, but wait! We’ve been led to believe that she wants to be an editor, so … I dunno.

Just before the midpoint, Alice is back at work asking her boss if he’s read the manuscript they discussed in the beginning hook global inciting incident. It’s been 30 minutes since this storyline came up, and it feels like the film is finally getting back on track. This is the story they said they’d tell us. Alice even asks her father for his professional advice, which leads to the midpoint shift: Alice’s father steals the new writer from her and he gets credit for discovering her. This has been set up beautifully because we saw him do it to Alice’s mother.

Alice then spirals out of control until 20 minutes before the end of the film when we finally see her start to write. “A-ha!,” we think. “So she wants to be a writer!” But no. The blog is really just her way of begging Emmett to take her back. What does this have to do with the objects of desire that were established in the beginning hook? Nothing. 

Between the blog and her seduction of the babysitter, whatever empathy we had for her vanishes. It’s beginning to look like Alice will get neither her conscious want nor subconscious need, and we have a protagonist we no longer have empathy for. We might pity her, but pity is like the nail in the coffin. It’s empathy we want because without it, we don’t care what happens to her.

Ending Payoff: Alice is offered a chance to edit the new manuscript from the author she discovered. This is the story we thought we were going to be told. But how did this opportunity happen? Well, her father said that she was the one who pulled the first manuscript from the slush pile. So, what? Her domineering father (the agent) turned a new leaf because she managed to order her own meal at dinner? It’s just so weird. 

Alice gets her conscious want, but she didn’t do anything to earn it. She didn’t become empowered and take control of her life. In fact, just the opposite happened. She remained disenfranchised; although one hopes this is the beginning of something better for her.

Kim and Anne have already discussed the core event (in which Alice remains powerless), so I’ll move on to the reconciliation with Emmett. 

Why would a film about a women who needs to take her power back from the men who dominate her, choose to publicly beg for a man to take her back? That’s not the power position.

So, for all that, where does The Girl in the Book land in terms of objects of desire?

First of all, they’re not clearly articulated because the genre isn’t clearly articulated. 

Alice gets what she wants, not of her own doing but because a man who has power over her gives it to her. 

Alice does not get what she needs.

If you remember what I said when I began, a character doesn’t have to get her want, but she must get her need. Here we have the reverse happening and as a result, we have a story that, for all it’s potential and terrific setups, is kind of confusing and, in my opinion, doesn’t work.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Fred. 

This week’s question comes to us from Caleb on Twitter. Caleb writes:

The Foolscap is equal parts overwhelming and intimidating. I have started a few and I keep second guessing myself and getting frustrated. I think I’m searching for the “right” answer. The value at stake and the obligatory scenes are usually where I get stuck. What’s your process for actually completing the foolscap? How long does it take you to put one of these together?

Valerie: Ah, Caleb. I feel your pain.

In terms of value shift and obligatory scenes, there are already loads of free resources available on the Story Grid site to help you. For example, I wrote an article called Value Shift 101, and I did a bite-sized episode about it here on the podcast. Also, in the first two seasons of the show, we reviewed the conventions and obligatory scenes for each of the 12 content genres. So, go check those out. 

In terms of my process for completing the foolscap, it differs depending on whether I’m in editing mode or writing mode. 

For editing, I watch the film or read the book completely and then do the foolscap. It doesn’t usually take me too long; an hour maybe. But remember, that’s because so far, I’ve done more than 100 of them. Initially, I’d have to watch a film 3 or 4 times to be able to figure out everything. Now, depending on the story, I can do it in 1 or 2 viewings.  When the Roundtablers started studying together, we discussed the act breaks for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days for two hours—and that was after studying love stories for two days directly with Shawn.

For novels, I read now with a stack of post-it notes next to me. As I read, I flag the act breaks and pages with key scenes on them. I’ll still have to go back through the novel a second time though. When I started, it took me 3 months–full time…8 hour days—to analyze Dracula

In terms of writing, when I’m using the foolscap as a drafting tool, it takes me much longer and the process is much different. This is the kind of information I’m sharing in my inner circle, so if you want more information you can go to valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle and sign up. 

Basically, for the novel I’m writing now, I started working on my foolscap a year ago, and it isn’t finished yet. Why is it taking me so long? Well, because I’m writing at the edges of my ability and that’s something you have to do if you’re going to constantly level up your craft. In fact, I have three foolscaps for my current work-in-progress because there are three storylines.

So, the way to stop second-guessing yourself and to avoid frustration is to study.

It takes time to master these skills, but they can be mastered. The way to do that is through repetition. So, find a bunch of stories that are in the same genre as the one you’re writing in and complete the foolscap for them. By “a bunch” I mean 25 or more films and at least a half dozen novels. I’m not kidding. If you don’t want to do that, you can hire a Story Grid Editor to help you.

Very few people are willing to put in this kind of effort, but those who do, experience a quantum leap in their ability to write a story that works. If you’re serious about being an author, it’s a wise investment of your time and money.

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

Today’s episode marks the 76th film we’ve analyzed, and our 86th episode altogether. So we’re taking a much-needed break.

But stay tuned because we’ll be dropping a series of our popular Bite Size episodes over the next several weeks, starting next week when Anne interviews Story Grid’s queen of genre, Rachelle Ramirez.

We’ll be back with full length episodes on December 11.

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

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Leslie Watts

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 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.