Editor Roundtable: Mrs. Doubtfire

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This week, Valerie looks at Mrs. Doubtfire, in order to study Forces of Antagonism. This 1993 film was directed by Chris Columbus from a screenplay by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon. It was based on the 1987 novel, Alias Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine.

 

 

The Story

 

  • Beginning Hook – When Daniel Hillard’s wife Miranda files for divorce, family court tells him that if he wants joint custody of his children, he must find a fulltime job and create a suitable home in 90 days. Miranda decides to hire a nanny, so Daniel (who is a professional actor) disguises himself as Mrs. Doubtfire and cares for his kids after school. 
  • Middle Build – Daniel’s brother, who happens to be a makeup artist, creates a full costume and for the first half of the middle build, Mrs. Doubtfire creates a warm and nurturing environment for Miranda and the children. At the midpoint, the oldest two children discover that Mrs. Doubtfire is actually their father but they agree to keep his secret. When Mrs. Doubtfire receives an invitation to Miranda’s birthday supper which happens to be the same time and place as Daniel’s important business dinner, he must decide whether he’ll accept (to make his youngest daughter happy) or not. He accepts.
  • Ending Payoff – A huge part of the ending payoff is taken up by the huge, 17-minute dinner scene, during which Robin Williams switches between Daniel and Mrs. Doubtfire multiple times, and his cover is eventually blown. Interestingly, the ending payoff crisis belongs to Miranda. When the court awards full custody to her, and gives Daniel only supervised visitation, she must decide whether to let that ruling stand or do something about it. She decides that Daniel and the children should have more time together and so he becomes their new babysitter. 

 

Additional comments: 

 

Kim: I don’t think this is a global Performance story, even though it can technically check all or most of the Performance boxes. Rather I’d say this is a global Status story for Daniel, but in this case “success” here is about his social status within the hierarchy of the family. He faces misfortune and loses status in the BH, then fights to regain it in the MB through his scheme as Mrs Doubtfire. And it works until it doesn’t. I was fascinated that he doesn’t actually change–almost like a Status-Admiration character, but he actually fails, so more like Status-Pathetic or Status-Tragic. He keeps beating the same drum of his moral code, but needs to adjust his definition of success and the means which he attains it in order to actually achieve it. In fact if it weren’t for Miranda’s Worldview-Maturation arc about the way she sees him, the story would end negatively, as a cautionary tale. “Even well-meaning parents can fail if they don’t grow up.” This story is another example of why it feels like we need a familial love category rather than just society-domestic, because the big meta why if this story is about how familial love can triumph even after divorce. So the performance aspect of the story feels like the vehicle for his attempts to rise, but not the global Story.

 

The Principle – Valerie – Forces of Antagonism – Society

I chose Mrs. Doubtfire as an example of society as the force of antagonism in a story. My hypothesis is that when society is the villain, it operates through the various characters in the story. This was the case with Brooklyn and Brokeback Mountain, and it’s true of Mrs. Doubtfire. And, as Leslie reminded me, it’s also true of Get Out, If Beale Street Could Talk, Selma and Hidden Figures.

Of course, a lot of this film is a showcase of Robin Williams’s talent, but there’s also some very fine storytelling happening, starting with the opening scene. It’s not the inciting incident of the global story, but it does a fantastic job of introducing the protagonist, the antagonist and the ordinary world. It sets up everything that is to follow in the rest of the story. 

We see Daniel’s talent for voices and creating characters, we learn his philosophy for what is and isn’t appropriate for children’s programming, and we discover that he’s a moral character who chooses his values over money.

When society is the force of antagonism, at least in the stories I’ve studied so far, the protagonist is expected to behave in ways that are acceptable to the society in which they live. They are to abide by social norms. There’s zero tolerance for deviation, or for characters to find their own path, or march to the beat of their own drummer. A societal antagonist wants the protagonist to be one of the masses and not their own individual, unique selves.

In the opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire, the director is the antagonist. He wants Daniel to stick to the script. He will tolerate no deviation, no interpretation, no free thinking. As the mouthpiece for the corporate world, he is there to tell Daniel to get in line and do what he’s told, or he’s out of a job.

Do what you’re told. Be what society expects a person of your gender and your place in society to be. That’s the message of the societal antagonist. We saw this with Brokeback Mountain where Ennis and Jack are expected to be heterosexual; they’re supposed to get married and raise families. We saw it in Brooklyn, where Eilis is expected to hunt for a husband and to marry Jim. And, we see it here in Mrs. Doubtfire where Daniel is expected to have a steady (and acceptable) job and be a responsible adult; and of course by extension this means not having fun and not enjoying life. It means being more like Miranda.

A quick aside here about Ins and Outs. Again, Steven Pressfield talks about this on his Writing Wednesdays blog and in his JABs. Just as the beginning and the end of stories mirror one another, the opening scene and the closing scene mirror one another. In the Level Up Your Craft course, Shawn goes into detail about the beginning and end of a story rhyming, but until Steven Pressfield pointed it out, I never realized how often the opening and closing scenes rhyme as well. This is something to start noticing in films and in novels because it really helps give a satisfying resolution to a story. 

The opening scene of Mrs. Doubtfire is Daniel working on a children’s cartoon and taking umbrage at the content. He’s told by the socially acceptable adults of society that he’s not responsible enough to look after his own children. The irony of course, is that he’s completely responsible. He’s the one who points out that it’s irresponsible to create programming that promotes smoking to minors. In the closing scene, Daniel is once again working on a children’s show. However, because he has now learned to integrate the Mrs. Doubtfire aspects of his personality and has grown up a little bit, he’s not simply an employee of a show, he’s the star of the show. And what’s more, the show reflects his values and what he feels is appropriate for children. Of course, it allows him to still be playful.

The director isn’t the only antagonist in the story however. Society has a very strict set of rules that dictate how a man of Daniel’s age, and how a father, should behave and what he should do. So, at every turn, Daniel is confronted by another character who represents one of these rules, and all of these rules are opposite to Daniel’s nature. And what’s even more impressive is that every character is introduced in the beginning hook.

His next door neighbour and the police react to the party because the noise, the animals and the general energy level are all socially unacceptable. 

Miranda is an obvious antagonist because she’s the one who files for divorce due to his lack of seriousness and irresponsibility. She argues with him, drops the kids off late and picks them up early, and refuses to let Daniel pick the children up from school and watch them in the afternoons. She’s the one who brings out Daniel’s shadow, causing him to express his shadow desire that she come down with piles or amoebic dysentery, and in fact, causing him to invent Mrs. Doubtfire.

Family court recognizes that he’s obviously a loving father, but judges that love isn’t enough. Daniel must have a steady job and acceptable home and is given 90 days to conform to what society deems acceptable.

The court liaison expresses an open dislike of Daniel’s talents and overall attitude. He’s trying to keep things light because that’s how he can cope with the seriousness of what’s happening to him. But she interprets it as irresponsibility or flippancy. The court liaison, like society, does not tolerate free spirits. Free spirits must be brought to task or punished. 

And Daniel is punished with his new job. Where in the opening scene we saw him as an actor, acting, now he’s packing up films and shipping them. His boss who has no sense of humour, no talent, no dreams or aspirations. He does what he’s told without question and for that, he’s rewarded by being the boss of his corner of the world. Society forces Daniel to be his underling.

None of these characters have a sense of humour because the antagonist is in contrast to the protagonist, Daniel, who is defined by his humour.

Society isn’t finished with Daniel yet however. It antagonises him through his eldest daughter Lydia who chastises him for not trying hard enough, and it introduces Stuart who does everything society has expected of him, and who is being richly rewarded. He is fit, handsome, rich, admired, respected and he’s taking Daniel’s family away from him. 

Another quick side note here: I find it very interesting that within the family dynamic the hero, victim and villain roles are very well defined throughout the story. Daniel, as our protagonist, is the hero. The children are the victims and Miranda is the villain. What’s particularly interesting about this is that the roles are crystal clear while the subject matter is anything but black and white. 

The forces of antagonism that were introduced in the beginning hook then carry through the middle build, but more are added. As a woman, Daniel has to deal with the bus driver and with fashion (society dictates that women wear heels). He also has to deal with society’s attitude toward a man dressing in women’s clothes or even disguising himself for any reason. Miranda and the family court have a very strong reaction to it, but even his son questions it. That means that two of Daniel’s three children are mouthpieces for the societal force of antagonism.

So, I think Mrs. Doubtfire does an incredible job of creating a societal force of antagonism that opposes the protagonist at every turn.

 

Kim – Establishing Plausibility/Credibility in Your Beginning

What a fun pick this week. Mrs Doubtfire is a classic from when I was a kid that I’ve seen countless times but I had a great time rewatching it now, with fresh eyes on so many different levels. One strange surprise was to recognize how much this story may have influenced my own storytelling … both with the high contrast of comedy and drama and the protagonist’s ability to disguise themself via movie make up. Turns out my novel is a conglomerate of Mrs Doubtfire, A Spell for Chameleon, and How I Met Your Mother – go figure! The lens of self discovery is never far away when you’re studying Story. 

This week I am excited to point out a crucial aspect of beginnings that Mrs Doubtfire does extremely well: establishing plausibility. 

Let’s unpack what I mean by that … in order for a reader to immerse in your story, things need to make sense. This doesn’t mean they have to know everything or even understand everything they do know, but it means that you have to build the case that what happens in your story is plausible. It’s possible, likely, and makes “sense” in context of situation. We have to believe you! Now some readers are never going to be able to make the leap, because certain types of suspension of disbelief are just not their bag. And that’s okay. Your job is not to convince everyone, but certainly your target reader. This is all the more reason why you must know your genre conventions and what your target reader will expect, accept, or not. 

So let me show you what I mean. 

Here is how the filmmakers create  plausibility in Mrs Doubtfire:

  • In the opening scene, we witness Daniel Hillard (a la Robin Williams) voicing multiple characters through multiple emotional states of a cartoon. He is very talented and convincing. We also witness his personal character in action when he argues about the morality of presenting smoking as cool in a kid’s show, to the point where he quits over it. 
  • Then we see him pick up his kids–doing more fun voices and generally being an all-around fun and present father. 
  • After the global inciting incident (in which Miranda comes home to find her house is now a barnyard and states she wants a divorce) we see Daniel staying at his brother Frank’s house. Frank and his partner Jack are professional movie makeup artists. Now this scene is interesting because in terms of plot it doesn’t “do” a whole lot. It doesn’t really move the story forward per se, but it’s vital as a setup scene for later. The information we need is naturally woven into the scene … 
  • In the scene, Frank is on the phone with their mother, Jack is working on a latex mask in their home studio, Mom asks about some beige concealer, and when Frank wants to get off the phone he uses the excuse that they’re needed on set, “places to go, faces to paint”. This establishes their profession and skill level. We also hear Daniel’s statements of denial about his marriage ending, stating his marriage is only on “hiatus” and “this is just a temporary thing. I know Miranda. It’s going to blow over” … then cut to the classic courtroom scene where the divorce is being finalized. 
  • We get another scene when Daniel is meeting at the social worker’s office and he demonstrates his vocal talents, in classic Robin William’s montage style. 
  • Then when the inciting incident of the middle build occurs–Daniel sees an opportunity to spend more time with his kids by playing the after school nanny–we are bought in. In fact the way they bring us through that is bit by bit. At first, when he changes the phone number on the newspaper ad and makes all the prank calls to Miranda, we think maybe he is just trying to get her to give up on the idea of a babysitter and let him do it instead. But then when he is actually charming and convincing enough to get an interview, we realize his plan. This is definitely the kick-off to the “fun and games” section of the middle build. 
  • The way the makeover montage at Frank and Jack’s house builds bit by bit toward the full-on body suit, opaque tights, face mask, wig, and teeth covers of Mrs Doubtfire, we are further convinced.

So my point here is that these middle build scenes work at their best because they were set up in the beginning hook, creating plausibility and credibility for Daniel’s scheme.

Now the flip side of this is a story that shows a character taking an extreme action but hasn’t set up or even hint to in the beginning. 

My husband recently watched the film The Foreigner which stars Jackie Chan as quite a serious character (a departure from his standard comedic roles–he did a great job) and, funnily enough, Pierce Brosnan (who plays Miranda’s new boyfriend in Mrs Doubtfire). Now this story couldn’t be more different from Mrs Doubtfire, but this principle about setting up plausibility to keep the audience engaged is absolutely in play. 

On Wikipedia, it describes the Chan’s character, Quan, as a former Vietnam War special operations forces soldier who runs a Chinese restaurant in London. 

When his teenage daughter is killed in bombing claimed by a group calling itself the “Authentic IRA”, Quan seeks out the names of the bombers, first from Scotland Yard and then from Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Liam Hennessy (played by Brosnan). When Quan is unable to get answers, he travels to Belfast and speaks to Hennessy in person, who again claims to have no knowledge of the bomers, again Quan does not believe him … THEN Quan immediately goes to the bathroom and assembles a homemade bomb out of lemonade, string, matches, and a cigarette and sets it off, a warning of more to come if he doesn’t get the names. 

This takes place during the opening sequence of the Middle Build (similar to Daniel Hillard’s transformation), and while the wikipedia page tells us Quan is a former special forces soldier, nothing in the film has given us any indication that Quan has these skills, only that he has suffered tragic loss. It isn’t until the midpoint that Quan’s background comes to light, to the audience or the other characters. 

Now why do I bring all this up? I have seen this occur in many of my clients’ manuscripts where they withhold certain information from the reader, sometimes knowingly and sometimes not, creating mystery when that is NOT the most effective way to tell their story. Especially when using deep POV character where the reader WANTS to experience empathy for the protagonist. This part of the problem in The Foreigner–they are deploying deep and empathetic POV for Quan but then withholding information and creating mystery, which doesn’t fit well with the POV they’ve chosen.

On the other hand, this does not mean you have to give the reader EVERYTHING upfront, and certainly not an entire backstory dump on page one, but it’s about intentionally delivering key pieces of information, at helpful times in a helpful order, to create the most effective and satisfying experience for your target audience … the CORE EMOTION.

So after a season of flailing around in the dark about beginnings, some things are coming to light, not the least of which is that a beginning can only truly be crafted when you know your end goal: core emotion and core event and final core value. Knowing where you want your protagonist (and your reader) to end enables you to line up the right dominoes, in the right order and direction, from the outset. To say it another way, the reader needs breadcrumbs to build credibility–show us what we need to see to allow your story to be possible. 

So while this is part of your “Means of Turning the Plot” conventions, it is also a convention of your reality genre … remember reality is one of genre’s five leaf clovers. It can be

  • factual (based on actual events)
  • realism (follows the rules of our known reality)
  • fantasy (follows rules of some other reality)
  • absurdism (there are no rules).

Whichever reality your story is, you want to clue in your reader early. If your story takes place in a fantasy reality, establish the rules that differ from our known reality as early as you can: animals can talk, ghosts are present, ships can travel faster than light, etc. And based on how characters react to this, you show us what that means: normal, out of the ordinary, scary, etc. 

And within the reality of “realism” like Mrs Doubtfire and The Foreigner both of which are “technically” possible, you have to introduce the elements to the reader so they believe the story is not simply possible but plausible, and not only plausible but credible.

 

Anne Objects of Desire

I’ve decided to look at objects of desire in today’s film because I’m finishing up my Story Grid Beat on that subject, and I’m interested in how to establish a character’s wants and needs from the very beginning.

First, let’s just stipulate that a 1990s comedy designed around the unique talents and huge popularity of Robin Williams doesn’t have to “work” according to Story Grid principles in order to be loved and remembered fondly. It just has to be fast paced and funny, with lots of Robin Williams and a satisfying ending. Whether this is a GOOD story is harder to say. 

It did do a great job of establishing objects of desire in the opening scenes, but problems began in the middle build, and by the end, my analysis failed.

First of all, what do we mean by Objects of Desire? Wants and needs. The character has a conscious want that they are living out at the beginning point of the story. The inciting incident either sparks a new desire, which they set out to obtain, or it threatens the status quo, which the character will fight to keep. 

Mrs Doubtfire is a case of the latter. The whole story, as I see it, is Daniel Hillard going to ridiculous lengths to keep his relationship with his kids as unchanged as he possibly can.

So that’s the want. What about the need? As the obstacles mount–in any good story–the character needs to make some kind of internal change in order to finally get the thing they wanted in some altered form. Story Grid refers to this internal change as the subconscious NEED. 

The conscious want will ideally drive the character through to the global crisis, at which point they have to uncover and embrace the need, which usually involves some redefinition of the want they started out with. Something internal has to give, or the character winds up with nothing.

This means that through the beginning hook and the middle build, the protagonist will make choices based on the want, while gradually dealing with complications that make it harder and harder for them to ignore the real need. The global crisis should force them to choose between the want and the need. In a prescriptive story, they discover the needed quality within, make the needed change, and succeed. In a cautionary story, they can’t make the change, and they fail.

Mrs Doubtfire establishes some clear wants and needs in the opening scenes. They aren’t explicit, but they are clearly demonstrated through choices and actions on the two main characters’ parts–Daniel and Miranda. I want to focus particularly on the kinds of things that aren’t purely dependent on cinematic elements–notably, in this case, Robin Williams’s unique acting.

So what do we see and hear right up front in this movie that could equally well be conveyed by a writer in text? 

We open on Daniel, a voice actor, doing his job amazingly well, apparently having a wonderful time, and then going off-script. When the director stops him, Daniel protests the content of the cartoon he’s doing all the voices for. The cartoon character is smoking a cigarette, and Daniel wants no part of that. He not only quits over it, but tells the director to piss off as he’s doing his flounce out the door.

In this scene Daniel is wearing an unbuttoned plaid shirt over a white T-shirt. He has a haircut that, at best, we could say needs a bit of work and at worst isn’t all that different from his 12 year old son’s. These details are the sort of thing you can easily describe in writing. 

Since he’s now unemployed, he surprises his kids by picking them up after school in his junky 20 year old station wagon. His kids adore him, but they know him–they instantly figure out that he’s there because he’s lost his job. Clearly this has happened before. But no problem. Even though Mom said no birthday party for Chris.“Mom’s not gonna be home,” Daniel says gleefully. He’s got a huge party already planned. It’s WAY too childish a party for a 12 year old boy–a traveling petting zoo and balloons. But everyone is having a wonderful time till Mom does get home.

So these are Daniel’s opening scenes: Quitting his job voicing cartoons, flouncing off with a rude remark to the boss, picking up his kids, and throwing a children’s party that makes so much noise the neighbor calls both Mom and the cops.

We learn a lot about Daniel’s wants from these clues, and we can guess some things about what he’s going to have to realize he needs.

First, Daniel values his ethical stand more than he values his job–and it’s clearly a job he loves and is good at. He cares more about having fun with his children than actually providing for them. He clearly WANTS to be with his children, but we have the impression after three scenes that that’s because he wants to BE a child himself. He’s a Toys R Us Kid. His clothes, his hair, and his general presentation all declare him not to be a serious adult. I even note that, perhaps coincidentally, his name, Daniel, is an anagram for DENIAL.

The want and need are generally dictated by the genre. I think I agree with the others that Daniel has a Status arc, but his want and need as shown in these opening scenes are so much more like those of a Worldview Maturation character that I’m not 100% sure. 

Next, for contrast, we get a scene with Miranda, Daniel’s wife. She’s professionally dressed with not a hair out of place. She’s in a fancy office environment, directing subordinates. She’s pleasant, but she clearly wants order, as contrasted with Daniel’s desire for chaos and fun. When an old love interest calls, we also see that she wants romance. Maybe she’s tired of being a mom to three kids AND a husband.

This is all before the inciting incident, which is when Miranda tells Daniel that she wants a divorce. We’ve been set up to expect Daniel to move towards his need to grow up, and maybe find some compromise between his love of fun and his responsibility to be a parent and not just a pal to his children. We expect Miranda to lighten up–at least a bit.

All that does happen by the end… sort of.

Not every scene has to force the character to make some choice directly related to their want. The 15 or 20 core scenes do, but all the other scenes are free to turn on other values. 

But the crisis choice in every scene has to have something to do with what the character wants or needs, however indirectly. 

This brings us to the concept of Essential Action. Whatever the character is literally doing or deciding in a given scene, their underlying motivation should still be related to the global want or need.

So, for instance, when the director in the opening scene offers the ultimatum to stick to the script or quit, on the surface, Daniel quits for ethical reasons. But what’s really driving his choice to quit is that that some weary grownup has put the brakes on his exuberance and the job has just stopped being fun. And Daniel just wants to have fun.

The fun ends in divorce court, when the judge gives Daniel only one day a week visitation with his kids and orders him to shape up by getting an apartment and a job. The judge is telling him exactly what he NEEDS. But even as Daniel is putting his few possessions into his junky car and saying goodbye to his kids, he makes fun of the kids’ grandmother. His literal action is moving out, as ordered, but his essential action is still to thumb his nose at convention and co-opt his his kids as pals.

We even see him fail to stop at the stop sign as he is driving away. He just can’t be bothered with the rules.

This same essential action repeats over and over again through the middle build. He says he wants to be with his kids–and he truly does go to ridiculous extremes to make that happen–but he continues to try to sabotage Miranda’s new life, making fun of Stu and giving Miranda terrible relationship advice, in just the ways a child of divorce will sometimes do to the parent.

I don’t think the global crisis is very good storytelling here. It exists solely to let Robin Williams be Robin Williams, and that’s great. It’s funny and ridiculous, and of course his big charade falls apart, but the crisis choice is weak. Should he be a grownup and take the business meeting that promises him a new career that would help him support these kids he loves so much? Or should he attend a dinner as Mrs Doubtfire so he can continue to sabotage the new relationship? 

“Why not both?” he decides. His motivation seems to be that it’s fun to keep fooling everyone–maybe to entertain the two older kids who already know his secret anyway. It’s not clear at this point WHY he’s continuing the charade at all.

Very quickly after Daniel takes on the Mrs Doubtfire persona, his wants and needs from scene to scene become less clear. But during the beginning hook, this film does use clear literal and essential action–that is character choices–to show us both Daniel’s and Miranda’s wants and needs, and eventually it delivers on them. 

It’s might be worth studying for that reason, though I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you that its take on gender identity and sexuality hasn’t aged well at all, so it’s not a film I’d generally recommend.

 

Leslie – Point of View and Narrative Device

I’m focusing on POV and narrative device this season. Here’s my quick description: If genre is what your story is about, POV and Narrative Device are how you deliver it to the reader or viewer, as in our story today. 

POV is the technical element, which tells us whether it’s first or third-person, for example. In a film, this nearly the equivalent of camera angles. (Here’s a great article about the intersection of camera angles and point of view.) Plenty of commentators and writing teachers say camera angles aren’t the same as points of view, so you might wonder how is this can help you as a novel writer. It’s useful to see how other artists work with problems that are similar to those you face. It’s just another perspective. 

There is some overlap between POV and narrative device, but basically, the narrative device or situation is the content element of your story’s delivery to the reader and answers the questions, who or what is the source of the story, when and where is that source located in relation to the events and characters of the story, who is the story for, and why is it being told? 

POV and narrative device give writers useful constraints for making content and technical decisions from macro to micro—not at random or on a whim, but for solid, story-based reasons. I’ve been on a multi-year quest to understand how POV and narrative device work and how to choose the best one for your story. I explore this in my upcoming Story Grid beat on POV as well as my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV. 

The bite size episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here. If you have questions about POV and Narrative Device, I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment here, get in touch through the Guild, or submit your question through my site, Writership.com/POV.

What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?

I start my inquiry with the narrative problem presented by the premise because it provides immediate constraints for my analysis. Generally speaking, the premise is a character in a particular setting with a problem. 

In Mrs. Doubtfire, Daniel is a father and voice actor in San Francisco who will lose custody of his kids if he can’t provide a suitable environment and find employment. Whether you see the global story as a Performance or Status or Worldview, you’ve got some serious moving parts in the story. The conventions of these genres require showing different levels of society and/or a big social problem. This often means including lots of characters to embody different perspectives on the problem from multiple layers of society. 

Not part of the premise per se, but the element of comedy is worth mentioning here. Full disclosure: I’m not as familiar with comedic style as I am with the dramatic, but what seems relevant for these purposes is that comedy is a way of highlighting a problem by making light of it and not facing it directly.

Filmmakers had an additional challenge, which may have been their primary intent, of showcasing Robin Williams’s considerable talents, which means some slapstick action that’s inconsistent with a more intimate point of view. 

With all of that in mind, let’s consider the POV.

What’s the POV? 

The film’s POV could be characterized as what literary critic Norman Friedman calls “Dramatic Mode.” Orson Scott Card calls this third-person limited-cinematic. I’ve also seen it called third-person objective and described as being the rough equivalent of the street view of Google Earth. This is a third-person narration with no access to the characters’ internal experience and no explicit commentary from the narrator. We can often tell what an unseen narrator thinks about a situation from the details included and those left out, but that’s indirect. In this POV, we see characters acting and hear them talking, but we have to guess at what they might be thinking based on external clues. Friedman calls this “a stage play cast into the typographical mode.” 

I feel pretty certain this was not the POV of the middle grade novel on which the film is based, but I couldn’t get a copy of it to check. This POV is rarely used in fiction. Sometimes you’ll see it in portions of a story that employs other points of view. If you’re interested in writing from this narrative vantage point, “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway is the closest I’ve seen (it’s one of Friedman’s examples), though the opening paragraph feels like a neutral omniscient narrator to me.

What’s the narrative device?

Mrs. Doubtfire is a typical Hollywood film, which I’m finding means the narrative device is more challenging to suss out than in other forms. We have the various camera shots and angles that provide the vantage point for our view, and that gives us some clues, but it doesn’t give up the more subjective elements so easily. 

When this happens, my conclusion about narrative device is a guess based on my reading of the filmmaker’s intent. Reasonable minds could certainly differ on this point. It’s useful to consider this even though we’re guessing because POV and narrative device combined are writing techniques and content designed to produce an effect. So thinking about the effect, we can consider what the storyteller’s intent might have been. 

I would describe the Controlling Idea/Theme this way: Divorced parents find success in spite of their choices when they remember in time that it’s really about the kids

If I think about who might want to deliver a message like this, I immediately think of kids in a family experiencing divorce. The kids in that situation might want to remind their parents that despite their differences, the kids still need them to show up as adults and put them first. A secondary audience might be kids of divorce to let them know that divorce isn’t their fault. 

In what form might we see this? I see it as a play staged by kids for the parents’ benefit. 

How well does it work?

How well do the POV and narrative device of Mrs. Doubtfire solve the narrative problems presented by the premise? I’d say pretty well, especially if I’m right about the controlling idea and intention for the story. The distant POV is well suited to the comedic style and cast of characters required to present different aspects of the problem. And I suspect that style is a function of the narrative device. If kids are telling this story, they would want loads of humor including fart jokes and slapstick gags. The birthday party in the beginning hook may not be every kid’s dream, but I bet few would turn it down. Even if the kids telling a story like this are grown up, they might want to employ this type of comedy to come at the issue sideways and offer a spoonful of sugar with the message to their parents: it’s time to grow up. 

 

Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers

We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. 

Kim: Set ups are so important. Introducing elements of your reality genre early–even if it’s set in the modern world–will help your reader build trust and suspend their disbelief. If you don’t and introduce new key information too late, it will feel like a cheat. Keep readers engaged by building a case for credibility for the most banal to the most fantastical circumstances.

Anne: A lot of my clients struggle with where to start their story. One thing Mrs Doubtfire does well is deliver opening scenes that demonstrate the character’s objects of desire. This is critical information that the reader or viewer needs right up front, and all good opening scenes are opportunities to deliver it. So one great way to decide which of your many potential starting points to use is to ask yourself, which beginning has the greatest potential to show my protagonist’s conscious desire and hint at the change they’re eventually going to have to embrace? Use that one.

Leslie: We read deeply within our genre so we understand reader expectations, and we read widely outside our genre to help us innovate and look for examples of other elements of storytelling. We can also look outside our medium for inspiration and guidance. On the podcast we’ve used films as models of global storytelling, but they’re useful to us for other aspects of storytelling as well. Novelists have certain tasks in common with filmmakers, and we can look at the differences to see how we might translate them to our medium. With any story you observe, consider, what can I learn from this example that I can use to level up my storytelling?     

Valerie: The biggest takeaway for me is that when we’re crafting stories with society as the main force of antagonism, we’ve got to think carefully about our cast design. What characters do we need to express the different societal attitudes and how do they antagonise the main character.

 

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Su Kopil on the Story Grid Guild community forum. Su writes:

I would love to hear an episode on how to use the Story Grid to critique a chapter or short story that isn’t working. How do you spot the trouble problems? Tips for coming up with solutions. Advice that critique groups might use. Thanks so much. Love the podcast!

Anne: I have a story to tell about this one. I was in a critique group back when I first encountered Story Grid. It was a solid group with strict standards where you submitted a scene and weren’t allowed to speak while the others were telling you about your missing comma or your faulty word choice or the feeling they they had that this character didn’t seem quite real.

One day, in I come with the Five Commandments, and totally disrupt the status quo. I don’t deliver a single line- or copy-edit. I say, “Look, your complications aren’t progressing,” and “Look, nothing’s changing in this scene, they’re just eating dinner.” 

I busted up the silence rule and asked the writer to explain what they were going for. I insisted on being allowed to do the same. The light began to dawn, and even though they hated it, they had to admit that what I was catching in the net of the Story Grid Five Commandments was useful stuff that made their stories better.

I quit that group. Joined another one that I also tried to disrupt with Story Grid. Finally, I created my own. Almost four years later it’s still going strong. We don’t call it a critique group; we call it an editing group. We started it based on Story Grid. We read each other’s scenes with the specific goal of finding the Five Commandments, making sure complications progress, pointing out when there’s no clear turning point, or when the scene turns but not on any value that’s relevant to the global story.

We know each other’s global story because we talk freely about that. We know each other’s genres. We all study masterworks to help form our stories. 

As to how you use Story Grid to analyze your own scenes, alone? I’m still not very good at it. That’s why an editing partner or editing group is so valuable. The work we do in the Story Grid Level Up Your Craft and Ground Your Craft courses is all about scene analysis–it’s absolutely foundational to writing and revising a story that works–but it’s really hard to get enough distance on your own scenes to apply it. I use the Story Grid spreadsheet questions to take a stab at it, but my editing group partners are much better at finding problems in my scenes than I am. 

So since you’re in the Guild, Su, use the forum to seek out an editing partner who has the same Story Grid baseline as you do. For people not in the Guild, do what I did: disrupt an existing group with the Five Commandments and demonstrate to others how valuable they are, then get them to buy in and do the same for you.

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.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are 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.
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