Editor Roundtable: A Man Called Ove

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The Story – Kim

Genre: Morality-Redemption

  • Beginning Hook – After Ove is fired from his job due to his age, he decides it’s time to join his wife beyond the grave, but his attempts to hang himself are foiled by many interruptions until eventually the rope to his noose breaks.
  • Middle Build – Still determined to join his wife as soon as possible, Ove pursues several new ways to end his life, until he sees another man intentionally fall onto the tracks. Ove saves him and decides not to die at that time. He begins helping a neighbor learn to drive, takes in a stray cat, and even babysits. But when a meddling “white shirt” (someone who represents a selfish institution) brings up painful truths about Ove’s past and his dead wife, he prepares to take his own life with a shotgun, only to be interrupted again by a young man who needs a place to stay.
  • Ending Payoff – When Ove learns that his neighbor and rival is going to be sent to a care facility, he puts his gift into action and organizes a solution to outwit the white shirt. But when Ove learns he has a heart problem, he must decide whether to try to join his wife as soon as possible or continue live and share his gift with those around him. He chooses to live, helping his neighbors along the way, until his natural death, where he rejoins his beloved wife and leaves a legacy behind with those who knew him.

Anne – Since I’m in charge of flashbacks this season (apparently), and the flashbacks in this movie tell a whole different story, here’s my version. It’s a love story, but I think it’s primarily a Worldview Education story in which love gives meaning to a deeply sad life.

  • Beginning Hook – When young Ove loses his mother at age 7, he and his father must build a life for themselves alone, but later, when his father is killed on the job in the rail yard, Ove must give up college plans and take his father’s old job.
  • Middle Build – When a greedy developer allows Ove’s family house to burn down, Ove, at his lowest point with nothing but the clothes he’s wearing, meets Sonja. They begin a courtship, and eventually marry after completing their educations. When, after a long wait, Sonja becomes pregnant, they take an ill-fated trip to Spain, where a tour-bus crash causes Sonja to lose both the baby and the use of her legs.
  • Ending Payoff – When Sonja has trouble getting a job because of her wheelchair, Ove remakes their home and the school to accommodate her, and Sonja becomes a successful teacher, giving meaning and hope to everyone around her, especially Ove. They live happily ever after until Sonja precedes Ove into death at the age of 58.

Taken altogether, it’s more a lifetime saga than a straightforward single story–it has a couple of All Is Lost Moments, as real life does–but I’m struck by the fact that the events of this backstory feel much more like a worldview education story than the present day one feels. I’ll have more to say about the backstory in a little while.

The Principle – Kim

This season, and probably for the rest of time, I am studying the WHAT, HOW, and WHY of global internal genres. This is selfishly motivated because these are the stories I seek to tell in my own writing—prescriptive tales that deal with life’s tragic and painful truths in humorous and heartfelt ways. But since we could all use help better understanding internal genres, this actually neutralizes my selfishness to self-interest aligned with the needs of others (these are Morality Life Value jokes, in case that wasn’t clear enough. Some people might say a joke isn’t funny if you have to explain it, but sometimes that’s the only part that is).

So first up, WHAT is it? Once again, no surprise, we use Friedman’s Framework to noodle this out:

  • Protagonist: Clearly this is Ove
    • But there is also elements of a great mini-plot backdrop, very specific setting with many characters whose welfare we care about. Hold that thought, we’ll come back around to this aspect when we get to the controlling idea/theme of this story.
  • Protagonist’s situation at the beginning of story
    • Character – very strong will, moral code appears flexible/self-serving based on mood/personal goals
    • Thought – sophisticated, very strict definitions of how the world should be, doesn’t have all the information about Rune & Anita’s situation
    • Fortune – Recently lost his wife, people perceive him as hostile
  • Protagonist’s situation at the end of story
    • Character – moral code becomes consistent, acts with integrity (what we think/do align)
    • Thought – gained missing information about Rune & Anita
    • Fortune – found new family connections, people perceive him as generous
  • Which element changed the most? We can see aspects of each element change for Ove, but for me the major change has to do with Ove’s actions, how he applies his moral code to his behaviors.
  • How do we feel about this change? Proud of him
  • Cause and Effect Statement
    • When Ove, a grumpy old man determined to join his deceased wife as soon as possible, is challenged to share his gift of a life of experience by the circumstances of his neighbors, he chooses to honor his wife through his actions rather than join her through premature death, affecting positive lasting change in the lives of those around him.
    • Generic: When a self-obsessed protagonist, with strong will and sophisticated state of mind, experiences a seemingly impossible challenge through which they recover their inner moral compass, they make a selfless choice for others and are rewarded.
  • Internal Genre – Morality Redemption

This story has strong similarities to Fundamentals of Caring (the tragic loss of a loved one in the “recent” past) but then why is Ove a Morality Redemption story and not Worldview Education?

Finding meaning/significance is part of the path to Redemption, but unlike an Education plot, which is purely a change in thought (that is their perspective/how they view the world), Redemption is about action, behavior, choices and, ultimately, sacrifice. The Education protagonist does not need to take new actions in order to complete their internal change, the change of thought is the change. But the Redemption protagonist’s change (and all Morality protagonist’s for that matter) is only complete when they have made a decision + action that reflects their inner moral code, either by rising to sacrifice or falling to selfishness.

Next up, HOW is the story told that communicates this arc?

Life Values

The values at stake in any of the four Morality genres are Selfishness / Altruism, with the full spectrum of the possibility being

  • Sacrifice Self for All Humanity
  • Put Needs of Tribe Above Self
  • Put Needs of One Person Above Self
  • Self-Interest Aligns with Needs of Others/Neutral
  • Self-Interest / Self-Preservation
  • Selfishness/Self-Obsession
  • Selfishness Masked as Altruism

The range for this Redemption story appears span from the Negation Of The Negation to somewhere around Putting Needs Of Tribe Above Self.

So from here, my goal is to get a handle on how the global life values show up in this story: how they shift on a macro level, and what tangible micro element “on the page” communicate these values to the audience. This week I’ve lined out my observations in a down and dirty spreadsheet.

One aspect that tripped me up this week is the definition of sacrifice. I wasn’t sure if Ove’s actions in the ending payoff “counted”, in part because it didn’t seem “painful” enough, like the cost to Ove wasn’t high enough. I’m not sure where or why I picked up that idea that sacrifice only counts if it hurts, either physically or emotionally, but along with stretching my understanding of story, it made for some very interesting self-reflection to unpack. 

Part of my problem was this idea that “Redemption is the opposite of Punitive” which is not entirely accurate. It’s not an unreasonable thought; they are within the same life value spectrum, and one ends positive and other negative. Opposites right? Not exactly. Even though there are plenty of times we’ve heard Redemption referred to as “bad guy turns good and is rewarded” and Punitive as “Good guy goes bad and is punished”, reasonable shorthand for the arcs, these phrases feel like oversimplifications of what’s really happening in the pattern of meaning.

We know based on the Morality life value spectrum that there are different levels of sacrifice–not every protagonist will Sacrifice Self for All Humanity. Like all life values, there are gradations of selfishness and sacrifice which will be relative to the specific Redemption protagonist.

But comparing and contrasting with Punitive is what helped me sort it out. The Punitive protagonist may begin fairly neutral or even positive on the Selfishness / Altruism life value spectrum. But undoubtedly they will reach the negation of the negation–Selfishness Masked as Altruism–at some point in the story. This is what leads to their punishment, which feels like righteous satisfaction to the audience. The Punitive protagonist goes too far, often due to their ambition, and begins intentionally harming others for personal gain (Walter White in Breaking Bad is a clear example). But this definition of selfishness does not automatically transfer to the Redemption protagonist.

The Redemption protagonist begins at their own lowest point of selfishness and will showcase some aspect of the negation of the negation in the BH, but their flavor of selfishness is not the same as the Punitive protagonist. The Redemption protagonist’s selfishness is still an obsession and focus solely on their essential action, but rather than “intentionally harming for personal gain”, it will more likely manifest as “withholding their gift from their sphere of influence”. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

So for Ove, he begins by being selfishly obsessed with joining his wife in death to the point that he will go out of this way to help neighbors just so he can get on with it. He is so capable but he withholds his gift and only uses it to further his ends. It is an act of omission rather than an act of commission (like the Punitive protagonist).

I want to pause here and make it clear that suicidal themes are not automatically equated with selfishness, in stories or in real in life. The meaning behind the action (that is the life value it represents) can only be understood in context of the whole story.

So, what does all this have to do with the definition of sacrifice in the ending payoff? By understanding Ove’s specific slant and flavor of the Selfishness/Altruism life values, it became clearer that his sacrifice in the ending payoff is to actively give his gift to meet the needs of those around him, without regard to his own wants. Like Maximus, Ove never stops wanting to join his wife in death, but he chooses to stop actively pursuing it in order to help people for as long as his natural life allows. For him, this is a sacrifice.

Ending – Is it satisfying?

Yes. Because of the various threads it was tricky for me to precisely pinpoint the turning point/crisis/climax of the ending payoff, and it almost may be that there are two sequences: one with the turning point, crisis, climax for the external Society genre (helping Rune), and a separate turning point, crisis, climax for Ove’s internal Redemption genre (actively ending his life vs actively living his life). Either way, we experience a satisfying series of moments: interacting with the new baby, taking Sepideh for a drive, the letter he left behind, reuniting with Sonja on the train in death, and the final image of Sepideh checking the gate.

Norman Friedman points out that the Redemption protagonist is rewarded for their sacrifice. For Ove this is finally being reunited with his wife and also a funeral full of people who thought he pulled his weight, along with a community that will preserve his values. This is reminder that reward the Redemption protagonist receives may be in death.

Others Genres at Play

  • Love – Ove & Sonja — part of his backstory, the ghosts of his past (a convention of Redemption), Sonja serves as a mentor in his past and his conscience in the present.
  • Society – Disenfranchised (Power / Impotence) — feels like our main external genre
    • Age discrimination – Ove is fired from his job for being older, Rune and Anita’s situation with caregiving company
    • Disabled discrimination – Sonja in past at school, Rune in present with white shirts
    • Class discrimination – Ove in past with white shirts who wanted his house / neighbor’s house
  • Other internal genre in Ove’s past? Status-Sentimental for Ove in past
    • Suffers misfortune with losing his mother at young age, but has a present and engaged father as a mentor
    • Suffers misfortune with losing his father/then house, meets Sonja sees/loves him for who he is, encourages him to be his best
    • Note: Girl in the Book with Status-Pathetic in the past and Testing-Triumph in present with Society-Women’s as Global External—highly recommend/on Netflix/nearly swapped out my choice for my Morality film
  • Other characters internal plots?
    • Sonja in past — Status-Admiration
    • Parvaneh & Family – Worldview-Maturation/Affective about Ove (Parvaneh plays a mentor/conscience for Ove in the present)
    • Mirsad – Status-Sentimental
    • Rune & Anita – Status-Sentimental
    • Cat – Status-Sentimental

This pattern of internal subplots for the other people in Ove’s sphere of influence was a big AHA moment for me that shines a light on the WHY of the Redemption genre.

But before we look at the big meta WHY we need stories like this, I’m going to pass things over to my fellow roundtablers to hear HOW this story works/doesn’t work from their specific areas of study.

Other Perspectives

Valerie – Awesome, Kim. Thanks so much. Well, Jarie, I don’t envy you having to follow that! I thought of you while I was watching it because it’s a Swedish film subtitled in English. How did you handle that?

Dialogue – Jarie

Yes, It’s challenging but I always turn on subtitles when I watch movies. Looking at the dialogue for A Man Named Ove [Ooh-Va] is going to be a bit tricky since most of us don’t speak Swedish. I do want to look at some of the dialogue because it’s another excellent example of set and setting, especially, Ove [Ooh-Va]. For the dialogue, I’ll read the captions as best I can, which I do even for movies in English.

Before we do that, let’s look again at the setting that A Man Named Ove [Ooh-Va] takes place in.

The movie takes place in a townhome complex in a Swedish town. It looks like any other Swedish town as best as I can tell. It appears to be either the fall or spring since there is no snow on the ground and people are wearing jackets and sweaters.

Since we’re in Sweden, we’re going to expect the people to act like Swedes, since “Sweden is an egalitarian society built on historical circumstances that favor a sense of solidarity.” One of Sweden’s goal is vibrant neighborhoods and this plays a key role in this movie as explained from the site Every Culture:

One goal was to design vibrant neighborhoods, complete with schools, workplaces, community buildings, parks, health clinics, and shops; a successful example is Vällingby, a Stockholm suburb that attracted international attention upon its completion in 1954. Traffic safety has been an ongoing preoccupation of planners, and that effort, combined with campaigns against drunk driving, has given the country the world’s lowest rate of traffic deaths.

Given Sweden’s egalitarian mindset and strong solidarity streak, it’s no surprise that Ove and his neighbors will expect a certain mindset from each other. You see that in the opening scene when Ove is walking around inspecting the townhouse complex. From that, you sense that he feels he is important until he runs into the current president of the complex and then Ove’s mindset comes out as the opposite of egalitarian and solidarity with him wanting to kill the dog.

We get the sense that Ove’s mindset is one of a curmudgeon since you never see him smile, he wants to have people follow the rules, and he clearly misses his wife. We don’t know how much he misses her until this scene, which is the first time he tries to kill himself but is interrupted by PARVANEH [Par-Vahn-a] Notice that I said first:

Time: 0:08:37

[PARVANEH voice in the Distance] Easy Does it! Come on. Yes. Careful! Hello? Hello! Come on. Stop. Stop! Stop! Opps … Go forwards a little.

OVE: What the hell?

PARVANEH: Go forwards a little. Patrick!

OVE: What do you think you’re doing?

PARVANEH: A Tad More. I’m asking the same thing. He’s nuts.

OVE: Driving’s not allowed here, but you may have a problem reading Swedish signs, eh?

PARVANEH: Are you blind? Am I the one who’s driving?

PATRIK: Hi. How nice to meet you. I’m Patrick.

OVE: You can be called Mickey Mouse for all I care, but if you want to reverse, you have to …

PARVANEH: [Interrupts OVE] … turn the wheel the other way and look in the mirrors.

OVE: What’s she saying?

PATRIK: No Idea. It’s Persian. Beautiful though, isn’t it?

OVE: No … No. Hey! No! No, No!

PATRIK: I didn’t hit anything, did I?

OVE: Get out. Now! Go and stand somewhere where you’re not in the way.

PATRIK: Remember …

OVE: Thanks, but I, for one, know how to drive.

Ove then gets in the car and backs the car with the trailer up to where it needs to be. This scene is telling of Ove’s mindset because he was in the process of committing suicide and just could not let it stand that someone was driving where they were not supposed to be and messing it up to boot.

If we apply McKee’s Five Tasks of Speech, this is what we get:

  1. Desire: Ove wants to get back to hanging himself
  2. The Sense of Antagonism: His new neighbors, Parvaneh and Patrik
  3. Choice of Action: Ove’s annoyed and decides to confront them.
  4. Action/Reaction: Ove tells Patrik to get out of the car. Patrick complies
  5. Expression: Ove backs the car up and says he needs no help in doing so. He then goes back to his house.

We also see in this scene that Ove smiles at his wife before putting her picture in the window so she cannot see what he is about to do. As Valerie pointed out before our call, the fact that this is done without dialogue is a powerful visual. In a novel, this is a great example of when narrative should be used instead of dialogue and why the Yin and Yang of dialogue and narrative is an important balance.

This is also the scene where we get introduced to Parvaneh and Patrik (with two kids and one on the way), the couple that is moving in next door. Parvaneh is Persian and Patrik is native Swedish, which will be important later on.

The scene ends with Ove going back to hanging himself but again being interrupted by the neighbors and the girl looking into the window.

Ove’s voice as a character continues to be revealed as he interacts more and more with the “idiots” around him. He’s clearly impatient and this scene brings home the reason for his impatience as he visits his wife’s grave:

Time: 0:14:15

OVE: [Speaking to his wife’s grave stone] I’m sorry I didn’t come yesterday, as I’d planned. I just couldn’t make it. The place is like a damn fairground. We’ve got new neighbors opposite. People nowadays … it’s shocking really. They’re all incompetent these days. They can’t reverse a trailer, they can’t mend a puncture. And if you ask them the simplest thing, then they want to have lunch! Just imagine, soon everyone in this country will be busy having lunch! I’m glad I won’t have to live to see it. And we’re being pestered by a white shirt, too. A complete car maniac. It’s just chaos when you’re not there. But if I hurry now, I might see you later today … I miss you.

Ove then walks back to his house to try suicide again. Since this is more of a monologue, I won’t apply the Five Tasks of Speech but I will talk about Ove’s character voice, which we touched on in The Spy Who Dumped Me.

In this scene, we see why Ove is so distraught and this drives all that Ove does. It was his wife that helped him make sense of the world and now that she is gone, he is compelled to lash out until he can join her, which is his clearly stated intention.

Even though we don’t understand Swedish, we can get the sense of the way Ove talks and his mannerism as a curmudgeon, grieving man, who can’t make sense of the world without his wife. It’s touching in so many ways and highlights a problem that most older men have — finding meaning and fulfillment when they lose their spouse and their job or put another way, what’s their usefulness in the world?

Ove starts to find meaning with Parvaneh’s family, even though he thinks Patrik is an “idiot”. This is best captured in this scene when he’s teaching Parvaneh how to drive and she’s getting frustrated, stalls, backs up, hits the car behind her and the driver behind her starts to honk.

Time: 1:02:13

PARVANEH: [Parvaneh stalls the car at the light and starts to cry] I can’t do it!

OVE:  I’ll be damned! [Ove steps out of the car and confronts the driver] Hey, have you never been a beginner? Eh? Can’t you see the plates?

DRIVER: Easy does it, old man.

OVE: “Old man”? I’m not your old man, asshole! [Ove opens the door and takes the driver out.] I’m “angry man”! If you honk again, that’s the last thing you do. Get it? [Ove pokes the guys head] Eh? Get it?

[Ove leaves the driver and gets back in the car]

OVE: Now I want you to listen to me. You’ve given birth twice. Three times, soon. You’ve come all the way from Iran, feeling war and all kinds of hell. You’ve learned a new language, got an education and a job – and you’ve married a loser. So, you’ll have no problems learning how to drive. I mean, we’re not talking brain surgery here. There. Just start the car and drive off … Idiot! … Great.

[Paravaneh drives off smoothly]

We can see Ove starting to care about Parvaneh [Par-Vahn-a] and this is making harder and harder for him to commit suicide. This scene also is perfectly in Ove’s voice since it’s a mix between matter of fact and his frustration with the world. This theme continues on as he does all sorts of “good” deeds to help those around him.

After all these good deeds, it seems like he finds peace and then he can move on and meet Sonja, in the afterlife, where they first met.

Valerie – What effect do subtitles have on the storytelling?

Jarie: It’s hard to evaluate dialogue with subtitles since the true meaning of a word or phrase does it lost in translation. I will say that even though I don’t know Swedish, you can tell by the way the dialogue is said and the mannerisms (or narrative) of the character, the feelings they feel inside. That’s why it’s important that when looking at dialogue, you also look at the narration. Both are equally valuable and given the universality of human expression, like tone of voice, you can still get a good sense of the impact of the words said — even if they are in Swedish.

Valerie: A Man Called Ove is filled with flashbacks, so Anne, what did you discover this week?

Anne – Story Form

As I suggested in my summary of the past timeline, there are two stories here. The secondary one is told in flashbacks, making this a somewhat more complex story form than it seems at first.

The last two movies I examined for flashbacks were The Fundamentals of Caring and The Spy Who Dumped Me. Both flashed back in very short bursts to a single, pivotal scene in the recent past of the protagonists. In Fundamentals of Caring, that little bit of backstory carried the meaning of the whole story. In The Spy Who Dumped Me, I decided that the flashback scene served very little purpose at all. In both films, the flashbacks took up four minutes of total screen time.

A Man Called Ove, by contrast, uses long flashbacks that cover almost the whole of Ove’s life up to the story’s present.

  • They run for a total of 37 minutes, or more than 30% of the film. There are about six of them, depending on how you count them.
  • They are mostly shown in chronological order, but there are some notable exceptions.
  • They occur either when Ove is near death during one of his suicide attempts, or when he’s recounting his past to his neighbor Parvaneh.

Taken as a whole, they’re like a highlights-only version of Ove’s whole life story, from the age of 7 when his mother dies, leaving Ove and his father to cope alone, through middle age, not long before the present story begins.

My first question is “Do we need these 37 minutes of backstory to understand the present story?

Yes and no.

No, in the sense that we could understand Ove’s bad temper and isolation through any of the many scenes where he visits his wife’s grave. Being kicked out of his lifelong job because of ageism–which we see in the opening scenes–would be enough to account for much of his anger and attitude. We could fall back on the curmudgeon stereotype, and assume that men nearing 60 all become misanthropes–reasons not required.

But the backstory adds miles of depth and meaning. Ove has enough character as a curmudgeon that it raises a mystery in our minds: How did he get that way?

And when we understand that, as Ove says, there was nothing before Sonja, and nothing after Sonja, it would have very little meaning for us if we hadn’t witnessed the series of horrible losses he suffered before he met her. We needed to see him meet her at the All Is Lost Moment of the early story.

So yes, we need the flashback information.

My second question is, do we need it in the form of flashbacks?

I’m thinking about 19th and early 20th century novels that took their time laying out the protagonist’s life from childhood so that their adult moral arc is crystal clear. Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, An American Tragedy. These novels are generally told in a straight linear sequence. Could Ove’s story have worked like that?

Maybe, in a 19th century novel style. We begin with seven year old Ove losing his mother, poor sad little boy, growing up close to his Papa, then losing him at age 16, and giving up his university ambitions to take a blue-collar job on the railroad. He loses the family house to fire and finally meets the love of his life…

Well, you can see the problems. First of all, it removes the mystery. We know how Ove becomes a curmudgeon because we’ve been with him all along. The main form of narrative drive would probably therefore become dramatic irony. And, as Valerie has been teaching us, for dramatic irony to work, we have to have enormous concern and empathy for the character. Ove is a somewhat tragic figure, but hard to relate to even as a little boy. So dramatic irony probably won’t carry us through.

What’s more, the story about a young man who endures great loss and finally finds meaning in love–that’s a totally different story. Marriage is the end of that love and worldview story.

But wait! Tragedy strikes again when his wife loses a baby and her mobility in an accident, and there’s a whole new story about how they win through together.

But wait! Tragedy strikes again! The wife dies, and takes all the man’s meaning in life with her. It’s too much. It’s too many arcs, too many All Is Lost Moments.

No, it was a brilliant choice to focus on the final story, the one that begins in late-life grief and ends in some kind of redemption. Revealing his past in good-sized chunks, clear and vivid, with no dreamlike qualities, at moments when Ove is near death or at breaking points–that’s a clever device. We wonder what happened, how Sonja died, what their marriage was like, why she meant so much to him, why he wants to die. That’s mystery, and it keeps us going.

So. How to do this in writing. I wasn’t able to get a copy of the novel from my library in time for the podcast, but it seems that Fredrick Backman, the author, used the simple expedient of starting a new chapter with a heading like “Three Weeks Earlier” and just went with it.

There is nothing wrong with going back in time to build up a character’s backstory in a novel. The questions are: in the kind of story you’re telling, does your reader need the flashback information? If so, how much of the information do they need (hint: as little as possible), and where in the story should you insert it (hint: as late as possible).

But if your reader doesn’t need the backstory, then no amount of clever flashback use will make it work. A Man Called Ove is a great example to study if you plan to try.

Leslie – Mini-Plot Conventions

We sometimes describe mini-plot stories as a slice of life and most are associated with global internal genres. Shawn tells us, here, that “Mini-plot concerns the inner wars of internal antagonism,” and though they play with structure, we still see a beginning, middle, and end. Consider the arch-plot on the one hand, with its conventional external quest narratives, and anti-plot on the other, which breaks certain aspects of structure entirely.

Mini-plot seems a little tricky to define, but thankfully there are conventions we can point to that bring understanding to this story form.

Characters

The main protagonist is joined by a group of other characters, each expressing alternate views on the struggle the main character faces. Here we see Ove surrounded by neighbors, each with ideas about what he should be doing and what needs he should place before others.

Specificity of character is vital. Why is this a requirement? Shawn and others talk about how we make a story universal through the specific—in any story. But why is that? Gabriel García Márquez, the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, explains that specific, telling details, like journalistic facts, lend credibility, which we need in fiction, even when we tell a story on the realism end of the reality spectrum.

Take the opening lines from the book by Fredrik Backman, on which the movie was based:  

Ove is fifty-nine.

He drives a Saab. He’s the kind of man who points at people he doesn’t like the look of, as if they were burglars and his forefinger a policeman’s flashlight. He stands at the counter of a show where owners of Japanese cars come to purchase white cables. Ove eyes the sales assistant for a long time before shaking a medium sized white box at him.

“So this is one of those O-Pads, is it? he demands.

“Yes, exactly. An iPad. Do you think you could stop shaking it like that …?

Ove gives the box a skeptical glance, as if it’s a highly dubious sort of box, a box that rides a scooter and wears tracksuit pants and just called Ove “my friend” before offering to sell him a watch.

Notice we get details about Ove, but most of what we learn right away is in how he responds to his world—in a very specific way. The next chapter shows us Ove’s usual morning routine, including his rounds through the community.

Mini-plots often include a passive protagonist, rather than one who is active. It seems funny to speak of Ove as not being active, to solve a problem, he often builds something. He gets right into action, but again, it’s a specific kind of action, the one or two he’s comfortable with, not the ones that require him to step outside his emotional comfort zone.

The internal struggle is a pitched battle that can produce a near-catatonic state on the outside. Imagine taking a struggle like in Black Panther, but set within an internal landscape, and you’ll get the idea. In a film, where we can’t read the character’s thoughts, great acting helps convey this internal struggle. The written version of the story accomplishes this through a very close and sympathetic third person narration. It even employs a form of dramatic irony because there are things we can see about the way Ove’s interacting that he cannot.

Setting and Circumstances

Contrast the pitched battle inside with a relatively calm exterior. Not set on an epic stage, mini-plots are contained within a micro-world that, like the character, is very specific. Within that this tight setting you’ll often find a rigid hierarchy, and that impacts the protagonist’s struggle.

Other than the flashbacks when we see other people, places, and things in Ove’s past, we spend the majority of the film within his small community. We meet people who inhabit this micro-world, but notice how we aren’t getting the film equivalent of an info dump. What we know about the neighbors comes through Ove’s interaction with them. In fact, we learn a lot about the setting by following the history of Ove’s relationship with Rune and how they established standards for the community, as the head of the board and his deputy, respectively.

Means of Turning the Plot

The protagonist’s want is usually deceptively attainable, but something within and without stand in the way. Ove wants to die, to join his beloved wife, and it seems like this would be fairly simple given his age and circumstances, but his neighbors interrupt him, and their needs awaken his natural inclination to be of service and his need to see justice done.

These external obstacles bring the internal struggle to the surface, and the protagonist recognizes they have to make a change. Again, Ove is done with this world and wants only to join Sonja, but his neighbor’s “stupidity” and the behavior of the whiteshirts distract him from his goal, revealing his internal need to right wrongs, both minor and major, and creating the internal battle.  

Philosophical causality is not critical in mini-plot stories, but we often see questions related to one’s fate and character. I was struck by Ove’s comment, “If it’s true what they say that fate is the sum total of our own stupidity, then I think what altered my fate was a result of the stupidity of my neighbors.” He was talking about the fire in his neighbor’s home and feeling responsible to save the people trapped inside. When he returned to his home, which was ablaze, the whiteshirt was telling the firefighters not to bother trying to put it out. Ove lost his home through the stupidity of his earlier neighbors, and the irony is that his eventual salvation comes from being of service to his current neighbors.

Mini-plot stories are often often nonlinear and play with time, as Anne has described, but still have a clear structure with a beginning, middle, and end.

Here are other examples of mini-plot movies that Shawn has mentioned: The Accidental Tourist, Love Actually, Lady Bird, Crazy Heart, and Gentle Heart. Here are four examples of books I’ve read in the last year and recommend wholeheartedly: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.

Final Thoughts – Kim

The final thing I am seeking to understand is the The Big Meta Why these specific genres–these specific patterns of meaning–exist. Why does humanity need Morality-Redemption stories to exist? Let’s start with the controlling idea/theme.

The model framework we use for this is: External value at stake (from our society-disenfranchised genre) prevails/fails when (change from the internal genre)

Power is given to the powerless when sophisticated protagonists stop being self-obsessed and selflessly give their gift in service of others.

The people who make a powerful difference (the mentors of Status stories and Worldview stories) are often the Status Admiration, Morality Redemption, Morality Testing Triumph protagonist…because once we know our gift, it is our moral duty to share it. And that is what these stories teach us. That no matter what has happened, or what we’ve done, we all have a chance to choose today how to live.

As Sonja tells Ove, “Ove, either we live–or we die…” [1:40:18]

Listener Question

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

I’m a big fan of the book and podcasts. I have a question regarding application of story grid techniques and writing short fiction (3-5k words). Should you try to write shorter scenes or just write 1-2 scenes that incorporates the five commandments? Any other advice regarding short fiction welcomed.

Valerie – This is an excellent question—many writers wonder how the Story Grid principles apply to short fiction.

The issue is not really about the overall length of the story or even the length of the scenes. It’s about understanding how the 5 Commandments of Storytelling work.

For a scene to work, it must have each of the 5 Commandments; inciting incident, progressive complications that culminate in a turning point, crisis, climax and resolution. The turning point that shifts the value of the scene. However, not all commandments necessarily need to be on the page (or the screen as we’ve seen). In order to figure out how to make this work, you’ve got to study other works of short fiction. You might need to analyze 50 (or more!) short stories before you really get a handle on it. There’s no short cut to this one, I’m afraid.

Also, it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of words to have all 5 Commandments on the page. Hemingway, for example, does not use a lot of words. We studied a chapter from Old Man and the Sea during our certification training and we saw one line of text doing double duty. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, tends to stretch things out because he was writing episodically.

So, if you’re writing a short story of 3,000-5,000 words, the scene length will depend on the story you’re telling and how you want to shape it artistically. It won’t be determined by the 5 Commandments.

If you have a question about global internal genres, or any other 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 when we’ll be coming to you live from Nashville!

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 (3)
Author Leslie Watts

3 Comments

Jack Lewis says:

Kim’s definition of sacrifice as it relates to the selfishness scale may be just the sort of revelation I’ve been seeking for the protagonist in my wip.

So if I understand it correctly, Redemption for my MC doesn’t necessarily require he atone for a past transgression. His can be a sin of omission when he failed to take a stand, choosing instead to remove himself from the situation.

It may be as satisfying to portray him redeeming his tortured soul by expressing his gift by sacrificing his goal of cutting himself off from corrupted family/tribe in order to save his community.

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Kimberly Kessler says:

Hey Jack, I am so glad our discussion helped you, too! Yes I think what you’re saying for main character makes sense—his sacrifice is giving his gift, and that in itself atones for past selfishness.

One thing to remember about Morality genre stories is that are rooted in our need to transcend ourselves for something greater than our own needs. On Maslow’s hierarchy this would be the pinnacle, the tippy top of the pyramid. It’s the opposite of base physiological needs, we are willing to forego our own needs for the needs of others, even unto death—real or metaphorical. Powerful stuff!

One question about your main character, what was the motive of his act of omission in the past? Getting to the root of that will likely show you how to arc him to selflessness. Best of luck! Thanks so much for sharing your revelation!

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