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Editor Roundtable: Manchester by the Sea

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During the first two seasons of the podcast, we watched a movie each week from one of the twelve Story Grid content genres, then analyzed it using the Editor’s Six Core Questions. We racked up twenty-eight episodes, twenty-eight Global Foolscap worksheets, and twenty-eight sets of extensive notes. That detailed content is available at storygrid.com.

After all that, we decided it was time for a change. So for season three, we’re analyzing films in a new way.

Each week one of us will propose a favorite movie that they think is a great example of a key story principle. That editor then has to make the case for their position with the help of a partner. They will advocate their case for why it’s a great example of a story principle, while two of us will be the opposition and put the proposition to the test. Of course, you can argue, debate, and tell us how you would decide the case in the comments below or on Twitter @StoryGridRT.

To wind up the episode, we’ll answer a question from one of our listeners. If you have a question about a story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or leave us a voice message at the top of the Editor Roundtable Podcast page.

This week, our A-Team is led by Valerie, who pitched Manchester by the Sea as a great example of a surprising but inevitable conclusion. This 2016 film was directed by Kenneth Lonergan from his Oscar-winning screenplay.

Valerie will be ably assisted by  Leslie. Kim and Anne will be the B-Team. Their job is to question whether the story principle really is well served by the movie, give some counterexamples, and help all of us get to the bottom of what a surprising but inevitable conclusion really is, and how to achieve it in your own story.

 

 

 

The Story

Global Genre: Morality > Redemption

Secondary Genre: Society > Domestic

Controlling idea: Good triumphs when Lee puts Patrick’s needs ahead of his own.

Beginning Hook – When Lee Chandler’s brother dies, he learns that he’s been named guardian of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick. Lee must decide whether he’ll accept guardianship or not. However, since he’s a broken man, Lee is unable to make the decision and defers it to a later time. (He spends the rest of the film struggling with this question.)

Middle Build – Lee looks after his nephew (for the short term at least) but when his ex-wife, Randi, confesses that she still loves him, he’s must decide whether or not he will stay in Manchester permanently (as Patrick wants) or move to Boston. Once again, Lee defers making the decision. He gets drunk, starts a bar fight and eventually breaks down.

Ending Payoff – When Lee nearly starts a second house fire, he must finally decide whether he will continue to be Patrick’s legal guardian and, if so, where they’ll live. He makes arrangements with family friends to adopt Patrick so he can stay in Manchester, while he moves back to Boston.

The Proposition

Valerie

First let’s start by answering a few questions.

What does it mean for an ending to be surprising yet inevitable? We all know what a surprise ending is; it’s an ending the audience doesn’t see coming. When that happens, our minds reel back over the story trying to make sense of this unexpected conclusion. For an ending to truly be surprising yet inevitable, once it’s revealed, the audience understands that the story couldn’t have ended any other way. It makes perfect sense for the story and the characters, and is completely satisfying. (Note: the word “satisfying” can be problematic because it’s subjective. Sometimes an audience wants a happily ever after even if it doesn’t make sense for the story.)

Why do writers want to include an ending that is surprising yet inevitable in their stories? When done right, this ending is a crowd-pleaser. Stories that pull this off, get talked about. Manchester By The Sea gets talked about.

Why is this ending surprising yet inevitable? There are many reasons, and I’ll go through them in just a minute. But they all boil down to one thing: this ending is completely in line with the character of Lee Chandler. It simply wouldn’t make sense for Lee to (1) either stay in Manchester, or (2) bring Patrick back to Boston.  

When we first meet Lee Chandler, he’s a broken man. In the scenes leading up to the Global Inciting Incident (ie the phone call about Joe), the only emotion he expresses is anger (argument with the tenant, picking a fight in the bar). Nothing happens during the rest of the story that would justify his being able to function in Manchester as Patrick’s guardian. He’s a hollow shell and, as he tells Randi, “there’s nothing there” – meaning, he can’t feel anything. His tragic past as left him numb.

That said, Lee isn’t a bad guy. He made a tragic mistake (stupid even) but a mistake nonetheless. He isn’t evil, he’s broken, guilt-ridden and in pain. He was, and is, a loving father, son, brother, uncle and husband. He never denies responsibility for the accident and seems disappointed to not be arrested and punished. While he mentions that he couldn’t turn the central heat on because of Randi’s breathing issues, he never blames Randi for what happened. When the police decide not to arrest or charge him, Lee decides to punish himself; first he tries to kill himself and then he exiles himself from Manchester.

Even though he knows he can’t be Patrick’s guardian (he can’t even remember where he parked the car – how could he possibly be a guardian?), he wants the best for his nephew. He refuses to allow Patrick’s mother to be guardian because, as broken as he is, she’s worse. He tries to make it work and puts his own life on hold to allow Patrick to finish the school year in Manchester. He discusses plans for Patrick to move to Boston with him, but Patrick doesn’t want to move.

Lee recognizes that Sandy’s mom (Jill) is a nice woman; if he wanted to resettle in Manchester, he could settle with her. She’s certainly interested. At first he can’t even accept an invite into the house and when he eventually does go in, he can’t talk with her.

Throughout the story, Lee keeps trying to tell people that he isn’t capable of being what they think he should be, or perhaps what they need him to be. He can’t be Patrick’s guardian, he can’t have lunch with Randi, he can’t make small talk with Sandy’s mother or stay for dinner, he can’t talk to Patrick’s mother or stay for lunch. He isn’t the man he was before the accident.

Everyone wants what’s best for the nephew (Joe, Lee, George etc) but they have different definitions of what is best. In the end, we can’t help but agree that Lee’s version of “what’s best” is actually what’s best. He is a shell of a man (a complete mess). His children died because of him, and he nearly causes a second fire in Patrick’s house. How could he possibly be a positive role model and guardian? Patrick does have a much better chance of becoming a fully formed, independent and well-adjusted adult with George and Janine. George is a better role model and together, he and his wife provide stability for Patrick during a time of great turmoil.

The Opposition

Kim

Our main contention with the ending of this story arc is that it is not Redemption, which is what the audience is waiting for. Lee’s choice at the end does not feel like sacrifice–to put the needs of others above one’s own. Lee never wanted to be the guardian, he states that clearly at the outset and maintains it throughout. In the spectrum of Life Values for Morality stories, the end feels more like the negative value of self-interest/self-preservation,  or the neutral value where self-interest aligns with needs of others. (Check out Leslie and Kim’s blog post Internal Genres Part 2: Character Driven Stories through Life Values for more details)

However, that is not to say the ending doesn’t work, it just creates a story arc that is so rare that the audience is not primed for it, so to speak. Manchester by the Sea seems to fall into the rare internal genre of Degeneration plot. Norman Friedman describes this as

A character change for the worse occurs when we start with a protagonist who was at one time sympathetic and full of ambition and subject them to some crucial loss which results in their utter disillusionment. They then have to choose between picking up the threads of their life and starting over again, or giving up their goals and ambitions altogether. If they choose the former course, we have what may be termed “the resignation plot,” but, since I know of only one such plot—Uncle Vanya—I have not reserved a special section for it. Chekhov, indeed, seems to have been obsessed with the problem of how a person can live after all his ideals, hopes, and goals have been shattered, but he most frequently had his protagonists choose the latter course, as in Ivanov and The Seagull.

It plays out as a combination of Disillusionment and Testing-Surrender. It’s not so much about gaining or losing their Inner Moral Compass as much as it gaining or losing their Will To Live (this does not mean they will actually die. They have already metaphorically died and they cannot bring themself to pursue life in its many rich and varied forms.) Our feeble short-range hopes materialize in long range fears.

We don’t have a tidy equivalent for this in our Story Grid index of genres. Shawn often chooses to keep his systematic explanations simple and universal as possible, to not overcomplicate things. I would posit there are additional subgenres of Testing (like their are in Action) that would cover this nuance. The protagonist feels like anti Status-Admiration–someone who maintains their principles without compromise, but the principles are inverted. Instead of Strength and Honor, we have Broken and Resigned. In Manchester by the Sea, Lee never waivers on his convictions–the situation is unfixable. His phrase at the end when he breaks the news to his nephew that he cannot be his guardian: “I can’t beat it.” And we understand. We don’t like it, but we understand.

So what does all of this have to do with the argument of “surprising yet inevitable conclusion”? It’s not to say the storytellers here didn’t do their job or provide a set up for their ending–it’s that the story they are telling is rare (Friedman found one!) and the pattern is not as ingrained in a modern audience (as say Redemption). Interpreting the meaning of events gets cloudy, because the reader and viewers expectations are for something else.

It’s interesting because the film doesn’t really try to get our hopes up–it’s painfully honest about how irreversible Lee’s condition is. And yet we do hope. One scene that we noted was when the rifles are shown in the gun case. Because we have already seen the moment in the police station when Lee tried to shoot himself with the officer’s gun, our chests tighten at this image–oh no, what is Lee going to do? And then the nephew comes in and Lee suggests they sell them to pay for the new boat motor. Our hearts soar!

It is these kinds of moments that set us up for a redemption that doesn’t occur. This is surprising, and his consistency makes his inability to change is inevitable … but it that the same as satisfying?

Anne

Personally, I define surprising yet inevitable as being uniquely satisfying, almost like a great punchline. Whether that punchline lands, of course, is going to depend on personal taste.

Some things are closer to universally-liked than others. I think we all instinctively know where we land on the bell curve of popularity with any given work of art. I like a lot of things that are just super easy and popular (like the big Marvel movies) and I know I’m right there with the mainstream at the top of that bell curve. On the other hand, I love some things that are obscure and weird and difficult, and I’m aware that I’m part of a smaller group in those cases.

So what you say, Kim, about the rarity of this genre and how we’re not really primed for it explains how this movie, with its thought provoking ending, does not feel satisfying to a lot of people. I came to a degree of satisfaction with it several days after watching it. It  won Oscars for a reason. But I definitely did not, personally, walk away satisfied. I felt that I was left hanging. The fact that that was kind of the point was, as I say, lost on me for a few days.

I think there’s a distinction between intellectual satisfaction and more visceral or emotional pleasure. Not a distinction in merit or worth, but of Core Emotion. Core Emotion comes down to “what the reader wants to feel at the end of this type of story.” For instance, I expect to have a “Stand Up And Cheer” feeling at the end of a good Performance story like Billy Elliot. That’s a very popular, satisfying story type. It’s a crowd-pleaser. So is the “Yay! She Beat The Bad Guys” feeling of Wonder Woman.

Moving down the popularity slope–arguably, and depending on the state of the culture at a given moment–we find the cathartic, emotionally cleansed feeling of a tragic love story like Brokeback Mountain, and the “Wow, That’s Deep” feeling at the end of a good Worldview Revelation story like Arrival.

Meanwhile, the rather shocked, thoughtful, shaken feeling I had at the end of Manchester by the Sea is rarely what I, personally, seek out in a story, but when it’s done well, I can appreciate it.

I’ll just wind up my thoughts by saying that writers should absolutely write the kind of story they have in their heart to write, but at the same time, they should be aware of that bell curve of popularity. Understand where on it your chosen genre is likely to fall, accept that, and make it the best story it can be. With all due respect to Kenneth Lonergan and the amazing performances by the lead actors, Manchester By The Sea‘s user rating on Amazon is about 3 stars out of 5, demonstrating that the story was perhaps more appreciated than loved.

That said, I certainly won’t forget it anytime soon.

Kim

It’s interesting to think about how small changes to the story could change the core emotion experience. I wonder if they would have played it more like a true-to-form Testing-Surrender story, where the protagonist must fight to maintain their will only to give it up in the end, would have been more satisfying. This might come in the form of more effort from Lee, an indication that he will try to stay close to Patrick’s school, perhaps close enough to commute, only he is unable to follow through after his encounter with Randi. The other thing that might have helped would be if Patrick were younger. At almost 17, the time commitment just doesn’t have the same impact as it would if he were younger. This may be more to the point of just how unable-to-change Lee is, but it does fuel the frustration we feel at the ending.

As Anne said, even though the ending did not feel satisfying in the way I hoped, the story certainly stays with you.

The Rebuttal

Leslie

There are two points that undermine the idea of this story as an example of what Friedman calls a degeneration plot. First, it wouldn’t represent a real change in the protagonist at all. Utter disillusionment could be a description of where Lee begins the story, but that’s a different value spectrum and doesn’t change appreciably from beginning to end. Also, it’s hard to characterize Lee as someone who is full of ambition.

While reasonable minds can differ, I see the ending as more active and more like acceptance than resignation.

Satisfying Ending

There is some evidence that this film provides a satisfying ending. It has a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 95 percent with an audience rating of 77 percent.

This film if it had a Hollywood ending couldn’t deliver this story’s powerful message about compassion for wounded souls. Sometimes when people experience trauma, they don’t heal so that they can continue their lives like before. Some would argue that what Lee needs is to be back with his family and community and face events and emotions. But that misses the point that he’s barely holding things together on his own with an uncomplicated existence. Instead of imposing our view on wounded people, we can offer compassion, even if we don’t understand their behavior. We can also believe them when they say they aren’t able to take on more than basic survival.

In an ideal world, Lee would heal and be able to move back to his hometown and step into the role of Patrick’s guardian. This story helps us to consider a different point of view, see reality more clearly, and make a better choice in similar circumstances.

Excellent Use of Metaphor

A great metaphor for redemption that provides subtext for the Lee’s relationship with Patrick comes near the end of the film, after the funeral. Lee picks up a ball and is bouncing it as he and Patrick walk along. He’s doing okay, managing to control the ball and walk. Patrick is asking hard questions about the details of the near future (e.g., When am I moving in with George?). Lee explains that he needs to find an apartment, one with an extra room (subtext: I want to make space for you in my life, even though I can’t be your guardian). Patrick asks why, and Lee fumbles through it and says, “Do we have to talk about this now?” Then he bounces the ball to Patrick without warning, and his nephew must scramble to catch it. He bounces it back to Lee, who misses and says, “Just let it go.” Patrick grabs it anyway and tosses to Lee. Lee misses it, but Patrick tries again, and Lee catches it. This is a beautiful resolution scene that seems to demonstrate that these two will be okay, that they’ve found a third way through their difficulties.

Valerie

How do you create an ending that is surprising yet inevitable?

This is all about setups and payoffs. The key is that (1) the audience doesn’t see it coming and (2) when the audience reflects on the ending, they realize that the story couldn’t have ended any other way. Any other ending would not have been true to the story or the protagonist.

So, as writers, we’ve got to make sure that we’re setting the audience up for one thing, yet delivering something entirely different – but something that still makes sense.

For example, in Manchester by the Sea, we’re set up for a happily ever after because that’s what we’re used to seeing in this kind of story. The character redeems himself by becoming whole and good (example, Scrooge) and the family that is fragmented at the beginning comes together at the end (example, Flight).

I believe Lee does redeem himself, but not in the way we’re used to seeing. More on that later. When we reflect on the story and the clues that Kenneth Lonergan has given us about who Lee Chandler is, we realize that there’s no way he can move back to Manchester and become the positive role model and guardian that Patrick needs. He is not, and never will be, Ward Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver), Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best), Steve Douglas (My Three Sons) or—dare I say it—Heathcliff Huxtable (The Cosby Show).

Great article from Anne on setups and payoffs: Storytellers, Assemble https://storygrid.com/storytellers-assemble/

This film is also an excellent example of

Exposition As Ammunition: The backstory is revealed only when the audience needs to know. The information given at key times in story and helps to drive story forward.

Innovating a Genre

Manchester by the Sea is a redemption story with a love story subplot.

Morality-Redemption: The quintessential redemption plot story is A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a black hat at the beginning, and a white hat at the end. So many stories follow this pattern that the audience is “programmed” to expect it. We’re programmed to expect that Lee will somehow get his act together, move back to Manchester and be the man we know he could have been. We assume it will happen, the only question in the audience’s mind is how it will happen.

Of course, it never does. Lee Chandler is a very different type of character and at first blush, he doesn’t seem to redeem himself at all! He’s still broken. He can’t heal and doesn’t seem to want to because feeling the pain and living with the pain is his penance.

When the film begins, Lee is at the negation of the negation. He’s a shell of a man, living in pain. Death would be a mercy for him, but he’s been denied that release. He’s in a living hell. By the end of film he redeems himself, but not in the way the town, or the audience expects. He can’t care for his nephew. He’s so broken that if he was the guardian he’d end up ruining his nephew’s life. He loves his nephew and wants what’s best – and what’s best is to be raised by a well-adjusted couple with parenting experience. Not being raised by a broken man who can’t feel anything but anger. So, leaving Manchester the second time is for the greater good. (Note: Lee doesn’t go to the full positive value on the spectrum, but does end positively.)

In the beginning of the story (Lee’s story, not the film), he did what was best for himself. It was easier for him to continue on to the minimart and not trudge all the way back to the house to check on the fireplace screen. By the end of the film/story, Lee does what’s best for his nephew.

Love Story: Audiences expect (and hope) to see love stories end positively. The happily ever after ending is a crowd pleaser. It’s obvious that Lee still loves Randi (and even refers to her as his wife) and knowing that she has remarried and is having another child, hurts him more. When she confesses her love for him, the audience has hope that maybe, just maybe, they can find some way to work things out. Our hopes are dashed however when Lee confesses that “there’s nothing”. It’s heartbreaking. Lee loves her so much that he’s not going to drag her down with him. He’s not going to do anything to put her current happiness – or her attempt at happiness – at risk. He’s certainly not going to do anything to put Dillon’s chances of a happy childhood at risk. This is a bittersweet proof of love scene if there ever was one. As much as we want Randi and Lee to be together (because we know they belong together), that ending would not have rung true.

Refusal to Choose Indication of Psychic Break: During the crisis moment, the protagonist can either choose to act, or do nothing. If he acts, his options are a Best Bad Choice or Irreconcilable Goods. If he does nothing, it’s an indication of a psychic break. The character is in such turmoil that he simply can’t choose. This is not a “get out of jail free” card for the writer. Having a character not make a choice is a very difficult technique to pull off and should only be used if and when it propels the story forward – and even then, only once in a story.

In Manchester By The Sea, Lee Chandler has suffered a staggering personal trauma that has left him so broken that he’s unable to make even the smallest decisions. At the beginning of the film, he can’t give his professional opinion to a tenant. Of course the biggest decision he has to make concerns the guardianship of Patrick, and it takes him the entire film to do it. When he is able to act, his choices are those that allow him to express anger and feel pain. He yells at a tenant, punches his fist through a window and twice starts a bar fight. It’s only after the second fight, when he’s been knocked out and severely beaten, that he finally breaks down and cries. In the end, his decision to return to Boston without Patrick is exactly because he is broken. He knows the boy would be better off with George and Janine.

Mirror of BH Crisis and EP Crisis: The crisis of the beginning hook is when Lee has to decide whether he’ll be Patrick’s guardian or not. This question comes up again in the ending payoff, but this time it’s answered. When Lee nearly starts another house fire, he realizes that he can’t possibly raise his nephew.

Subtext and Metaphor

Sharks: Flashback to banter about sharks. Keep your thumb out of the way so you don’t get cut because sharks will smell the blood and tear the whole boat apart. Why does he think of this while driving to see Patrick? Why this memory of all the memories he could be thinking about with his brother and nephew? Lee knows he’s wounded and his angry emotions could tear everything apart. The entire time he’s in MbtS, he’s trying to manage the bleeding and keep the sharks at bay. He’s especially careful (and vulnerable) when he’s with Patrick.

Character Foil

Patrick’s mother is broken too, though we don’t know why. Her character provides a great contrast to Lee. She’s an example of someone who is broken and can’t cope, but doesn’t realize it, and so has a cycle of trying and failing that is harder for everyone. Her new husband recognizes what she can’t after the lunch and tells Patrick he will manage the relationship.

Listener Questions

To wind up the episode, we’ll answer a question from one of our listeners. If you have a question about a story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or leave us a voice message at the top of the Editor Roundtable Podcast page.

This week our question is from Faye White, commenting on our Gone Girl episode.

“Wondering if some of the story structure challenges (no distinct hero at mercy of the villain) might have been less distinctive if Gillian Flynn hadn’t written the screenplay as well as the novel.”

Anne weighed in on this one. Of course we can only speculate. Gillian Flynn has done some additional screenwriting for TV, and one other movie since Gone Girl, but I haven’t seen them to compare. But the screenplay as filmed worked for a lot of people, as did the book, at least in part because it innovated on the genre.  The question is whether, as a novelist, Flynn has been trained as a McKee-style screenwriter, or whether she consciously chose to innovate by leaving out or changing some of the precise conventions and obligatory scenes for the thriller genre.

That wraps it up for this week. Join us next time to find out whether Kim can make the case that the 2014 animated adventure Song of the Sea is a great example of both the Hero’s Journey and Virgin’s Promise. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

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

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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.