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This week, Kim pitched Passengers as a clear example of a story that doesn’t work. This 2016 science fiction film was directed by Morten Tyldum from an original screenplay by Jon Speihts.
Dueling External Genres – Love vs Action
- Love story (Obsession vs Courtship)
- Action story (Environment vs Time)
- Morality-Redemption for Jim
- Worldview-Maturation for Aurora
Let’s break it down …
- Beginning Hook – On an interstellar journey to a new planet, Jim Preston is awoken from hypersleep 90 years early. After a year in solitude, he discovers how to wake another passenger, Aurora Lane, who he has become obsessed with. He must decide whether to remain alone or wake her early, damning her to life on the ship with no chance to return to hypersleep. After fighting the choice for months, he wakes her.
- Middle Build – Aurora adjusts to shock of life on the ship and, believing she is awake due to a pod malfunction, begins a romantic relationship with Jim. But when the android bartender Arthur reveals that it was actually Jim who woke her up, she is mortified. Faced with the rest of her life on the ship with him, she must decide whether to hear out his explanation and apology or sever all ties. She refuses to interact with him.
- Ending Payoff – Continuing system malfunctions cause a crew member, Gus, to wake early and he helps them discover the problem with the ship before he dies. While fixing the ship, Jim is killed, but Aurora rescues and resuscitates him and subsequently restores their relationship. With the ship fully operational again, Jim discovers that Gus’s bracelet would allow Aurora to return to sleep in the medical pod. He must decide whether to tell her and return to being alone forever or keep it a secret. He tells her. She must decide whether to return to sleep and go on to live the life she intended, or stay awake with Jim on the ship. She stays awake and they live out the rest of their lives together.
The Principle – Kim – Stories That Don’t Work
So unlike Jupiter Ascending, I did enjoy this film overall. But I experienced many strange moments when I first watched it several months ago. It seems like an instance where my personal taste and enthusiasm made up for a lot of very blatant flaws. But that is not a sound strategy for telling a story that works. So let’s look closer at why this story feels wonky and uneven.
What’s the Global Genre?
Screenwriter Jon Spaihts has addressed the criticism of his hero’s highly unethical actions in an interview with io9:
“It’s not as if it’s an accidental oversight of the film, where we, through some cultural blindness, have failed to see the appalling nature of our hero’s actions. It is the subject of the film. And I think that making a movie that leaves people room to argue about what they would have done, what they could have forgiven, what they can understand or fail to understand, I think that’s great. I think that’s good storytelling. What I don’t believe the movie does is endorse or exonerate anyone. The movie looks, evenhandedly, at the dilemma everybody was in. I think putting good people in impossible circumstances makes for fascinating storytelling.”
This comment makes me think that the writers intent was to showcase a Morality tale, about selfishness and altruism.
Dueling External Genres – Love vs Action
- Love story (Obsession vs Courtship)
- We begin with an Obsession story but it results in a Courtship. Jim is obsessed with Aurora and fixates on her as a way to survive. But through their unique circumstances of relying on each other so fundamentally, they do fall in love and, despite the horrific events and actions that put them together, find a way to forgive and commit to one another for life
- Action story (Environment vs Time)
- The action plot is a device and setting for the love story to take place
- Asteroid that threatens the ship, but in the end pretty easily fixable
- Time seems to play a major role, and the fact that they are trapped on this journey in space and will have to live out their lives on the ship. The prospect of having to face all that time alone is a fate worse than death, which drives Jim’s decision to wake Aurora, and Aurora’s decision to not go back to sleep when given the chance.
Internal Genres –
- Morality-Redemption for Jim
- But because his selfishness is driven by exceptional misfortune, and the fact that we are introduced to him first and empathize with him, the audience experiences him more like a Status-Tragic protagonist, where we don’t fully hold him accountable for his actions. And yet, he is saved from tragedy because of Love. So while it is a Morality-Redemption arc, there are elements that feel a little off and don’t quite resonate in the way we’re used to.
- Worldview-Maturation for Aurora
- Her Worldview arc technically exists and I can point it out and identify it, but I would have liked for the story to go deeper and for us to get to know her more. This is the limit of film as a medium and where a novel-version of the story would shine. Getting to experience these characters in deep POV would be a wonderful experience.
The most obvious issue with this story is Narrative drive. For two-thirds of the film, the audience experiences dramatic irony for Aurora. Once the truth comes out at the all is lost moment, the entire momentum and tone of the story shifts. From dance-off silliness to crowbar violence. With the tone so imbalanced the viewing experience becomes uncomfortable and, even at the end, there’s a strangeness to it where we wonder Could they really reconcile in that way?
I think the answer is yes, but did this story prove that case? I’m not sure. I find myself filling in the gaps with my own emotional truth, which is rooted in the power of unconditional love and forgiveness (I’m usually the least “eye for an eye” kind of person in any conversation). But for many, and perhaps most people, a betrayal of this magnitude is a burned bridge. And I get it.
One issue I see is that Aurora’s forgiveness comes largely from necessity—she doesn’t want to be left alone either. And while having her face the reality of being alone gives her fresh appreciation and compassion for what Jim went through, I’m not sure the story goes far enough to restore the relationship to be believable. Again, it’s a short change that may be a necessity of the film medium and an excellent reason to write a novel.
There is a video from one of my favorite YouTubers, Nerdwriter1, “Passengers Rearranged” In it, he recommends rearranging the story to have Aurora as the main POV character and shift the opening of the story to when she wakes up. This would change the Narrative Drive to suspense for Aurora, where we know as much as she does, and mystery for Jim, where he knows everything that’s happened since he woke up and we don’t.
The options Nerdwriter1 lays out are compelling, especially the variant where Jim dies completely, leaving Aurora alone to face the same lonely dilemma that he did. Should she wake someone up? That hypothetical version of the story would end feeling like the way I experienced the film Ex Machina. We don’t see how everything plays on screen, but you can follow it through in your mind and it’s chilling.
But that is a very different genre.
Valerie – I think this is a brilliant point! We don’t often talk about point of view on the podcast, because in films it’s often third person omniscient. But POV is one of the six core questions for a reason. It’s one of the most valuable tools in the writer’s toolbox. Nerdwriter1 is right. This would have been a more interesting story from Aurora’s perspective. It wouldn’t have fixed all the storytelling issues at play here, but it instantly makes it more compelling. So, the takeaway for novelists is: decide who is telling the story, and why. Try telling the story from different characters’ perspectives. Which one works best?
Leslie – Or how do we best tell the story we’re most interested in? I highly recommend exploring different points of view because it’s hard to really know which story we want to write if we haven’t at least considered choices beyond the first thought that arises. I may be in the minority, but I’m much more interested in Jim’s dilemmas, so I wouldn’t choose to write Aurora’s story, though I’d be happy to read someone else’s version of it.
Kim – We talked about this in Season 3 with Jane Eyre, how different narrative devices, different structures and different forms of narrative drive actually change what the audience perceives as the global genre of the story.
The creators of Passengers set out to tell a morality tale through a love story, to answer a very specific question in a very specific setting and circumstance: can love prevail when one lover dooms the other to death for their own selfishness (or out of their weakness)?
Part of this question seems to revolve on whether or not you see Jim as a Morality character (a sophisticated individual that we must hold accountable for his actions) or a Status character (a victim of misfortune and dire circumstances who cannot be held fully accountable for the outcome).
But the answer ultimately seems to come from Aurora’s own Worldview shift about what makes life worthwhile. The extenuating circumstances that unjustly brought them together and tore them apart are also what allowed for them to reconcile.
My big meta why this week is: Love prevails when we find meaning in choosing to love (and forgive) despite the weak and selfish failings of others.
Check out my nerdy scene list here.
So these decisions aren’t just about what makes the story work, but what makes the story you want to tell work. I’m still a bit undecided on how to make Passengers work as a Love story in a truly emotionally satisfying way, where I think it could work as something darker much more easily.
I’m looking forward to everyone else’s thoughts, and we’ll circle back to our treatment plan and prescribed revisions in a bit.
Anne – The beginning hook has a lot in common with the 2000 film Castaway–the one starring Tom Hanks and a volleyball. Where that film asks the question of how a lone human would survive on a completely uncharted island, and examines the power of hope and the will to survive, Passengers deliberately strips away the possibility of rescue or hope. It leaves only Jim’s moral choice of whether to steal someone else’s life or lose his own. I hated myself for rooting for him, but the story felt like it left me no choice.
The fix-it version that you mention would have been better, but even then, the impossible dilemma remains: if she kills him out of revenge, a year later she’ll be thinking about how to wake up someone else. No matter how you slice it, it’s a “Twilight Zone” story with a haunting ending, built on a situation so unlikely that we really can’t derive much wisdom from it. We’d just be looking in on a horrifying spectacle and thanking our lucky stars that it’s not us in there.
But the filmmakers didn’t even leave us that. They drummed up an implausible love story with a sentimental lose-but-win ending, and started troweling on the cliché scene types…which I’ll get into later.
Editor’s Six Core Questions
- Genre: Love-Courtship
- Triangle-Interesting in a cast of two characters 🙂 The only rival I can find is perhaps the life/adventure Aurora always wanted
- Helpers and Harmers-Arthur plays both roles, Gus is a helper
- Gender Divide-Each has their own gift that saves the other. Aurora’s writing saved Jim from depression/suicide, Jim’s ability to make/fix things saves Aurora (planting a tree, holding the door)
- External Need-stranded along together in space
- Opposing Forces-the truth vs the lie
- Secrets-Jim keeps the fact that he woke her up a secret
- Rituals-going to the bar to talk to Arthur
- Moral Weight-Love must be chosen, it cannot be tricked, forced, or coerced.
- Obligatory Scenes — some innovative observations here regarding the sequencing and specific execution
- (1 & 1.1) Lovers meet – Jim meets Aurora first before she wakes up, then on the main concourse after she is awake
- (2) First Kiss or Intimate Connection – After the space walk together (midpoint)
- (4) Confession of love – Jim tells her over the loudspeaker during his apology
- (3) Lovers break up – Arthur reveals the truth that Jim woke up Aurora
- (6) Proof of love – Jim offers Aurora the chance to go back to sleep, Aurora chooses not to take it.
- (5) Lovers reunite – After Jim is resuscitated, also when Jim gives her the ring at the very end.
- POV – 3rd person omniscient, we get external information about the asteroid field, ship malfunctions, system alerts, each character alone
- Objects of Desire (Wants & Needs)
- Wants: To be valued, make a meaningful contribution (that’s why he goes on the trip), he wants companionship/to not be alone (that’s why he wakes Aurora),
- Needs: To put the needs of others first
- Wants: To live a one of a kind adventure that lives up to her father (that’s why she goes on the trip)
- Needs: To choose her own version of a life well-lived
- Controlling Idea/Theme: Love prevails when we find meaning in choosing to love (and forgive) despite the weak and selfish failings of others.
- BH, MB, EP: See above
Friedman’s Framework for Jim
- Character–Strong will to choose to go on a journey to Homestead II, goes against his moral code and chooses selfishness when he wakes Aurora (due to misfortune)
- Thought–Believes in hard work
- Fortune–Suffers misfortune by waking 90 years early, spends a year alone
- Character–restores his moral code, makes a sacrifice to fix the ship, makes a sacrifice to allow Aurora to go back to sleep
- Thought–Doesn’t really change (Revising this based on Leslie’s amazing insight into Worldview-Education!)
- Fortune–Forgiven and able to live a full life with Aurora
- Audience experience–
- Genre–Morality-Redemption (Revising this based on Leslie’s amazing insight into Worldview Education!)
Friedman’s Framework for Aurora
- Thought: Narrow worldview–believes her life will be meaningful because she can write the story that no one else ever could (compares herself to her father)
- Fortune–Suffers misfortune when woken up against her will, lied to
- Character–Doesn’t change
- Thought–gains a new/broader worldview through misfortune+love+betrayal+forgiveness
- Fortune–Given the choice to go back to sleep she chooses to stay awake, lives a happy life with Jim
- Audience experience
Valerie – Back to Basics: The 15 Core Scenes and Genre
I’m going to take a break from studying empathy this week because, as important as that is, the very first thing a writer needs to decide is genre; developing empathy comes much later. We need to pick one genre and stick to it because everything flows from genre choice.
Since we’re having so much trouble identifying the genre for Passengers, I thought it might be a good idea to look at the 15 core scenes (15CS) to see what they reveal.
When I watched Passengers, my first thought was “oh, this is an action story” based on the same premise as Castaway or The Martian. Then, it became a love story and then it seemed to flip back to an action story again. I also saw the elements of redemption that Kim just talked about, and elements of education that Leslie will talk about in a minute.
The 15CS of any story turn on the global value at stake. So, if this is an action story, I expect the 15CS (also known as the story spine) to turn on the value of life>death. If it’s a love story, I expect them to turn on the value of love>hate.
Full disclosure, I found it hard to know where to break the acts in this film, so as a result the 15CS were hard to identify.
15 Core Scenes
BHGII: When the Avalon is hit by a meteor, the ship is damaged and Jim Preston’s cryo-chamber opens.
BHTPPC: Jim figures out how to open the pods.
BHCr: Does he open Aurora’s pod (so he has company, but condemns her to death), or does he let her sleep (and go mad with lonliness, but let her live)?
BHCx: Jim opens Aurora’s pod.
BHRes: Aurora wakens, meets Jim and discovers their situation.
The beginning hook of any story does a couple of things, one of which is to let the audience know what story they’re about to watch or read. Passengers has four of what I’m calling, movements and they are as follows; Jim is alone on the ship; Aurora and Jim fall in love, Gus’s story, Aurora and Jim save the ship. I think the love story and Gus’s story form the middle build (more or less).
So, as far as the beginning hook goes, the five commandments are pretty clear and Jim even discusses his crisis question with Arthur, the bartender (to wake up Aurora or not). Each of these scenes turns on the life>death value for Jim and then Aurora. In fact, Jim’s climactic decision here in the beginning hook shoots him all the way to damnation, which isn’t typically part of the action story. That’s the kind of thing that’s explored in thrillers and horror stories.
So, from the first act given the setting, the premise and the global value at stake for the core scenes, I’m expecting an action story or even possibly a thriller (kinda, maybe, sorta)—although more likely an action story.
There’s a very long transition between acts one and two (13 minutes long) as Aurora goes through the Kubler Ross Change Curve that we just saw Jim go through after he woke up. This is information that the audience already has; even though Aurora tries a couple of different approaches (for example, she looks for research papers) we’ve essentially seen it all before. As a result, the story loses momentum here.
Novelists face this same “bringing a character up to speed” issue all the time and there’s lots of ways to do it that don’t include restating known information. One of the techniques is used here when Jim answers Aurora’s questions during breakfast. The trick is to not belabour the point, so the breakfast scene could have sufficed. Instead they took up ten additional minutes of screen time with it. This is the kind of thing that makes viewers turn off and readers close books.
MBII: Aurora interviews Jim, which gives them a chance to get to know one another. (midpoint shift is when she finds out he woke her up)
MBTPPC: System-wide failure imminent, but Gus (the only one who knows anything about the ship) is dying.
MBRes: Gus dies.
Boy this middle build is problematic. As I said, there’s two definite parts to it; the first half is the love story and then, right after the midpoint shift (lovers break up) Gus awakens and it becomes an action story again. The problem is that there isn’t a crisis moment in the middle build—and this is a big problem! Huge, in fact. The middle build crisis and climax is crucial to a story. In Passengers, the characters discover that a system-wide failure is imminent but they don’t do anything about it. The rest of the middle build is taken up with Gus’s death.
So in terms of value shift, two core scenes turn on life>death, one (the inciting incident) on love>hate, and the crucial crisis and climax scenes are missing.
There’s also a setup that doesn’t pay off. We’re told that one of the pods has a midwife in it. Given that we’ve got a hetrosexual couple in the prime of their lives (going at it like rabbits), a pregnancy seems like a foregone conclusion. But it never happens. It would make sense given the premise that’s being set up and it would work for the global value of life>death. I would even work for an education story.
Once Aurora reaches acceptance, the love story finally gets moving. This is a very different story than the one the first act suggested, but at least things are happening again. There’s a “getting to know you” montage which is filled with things we’ve already seen (dancing, basketball, movies, the bar, and so on) and a series of “getting to know you/falling in love” dates.
In our episode about The Girl On The Train, we introduced the concept of cuttlefish. I want to give you a heads up here … cuttlefish don’t work with dramatic irony. In Passengers, the viewer is aware that there are serious system-wide failures, but Jim and Aurora are ignorant of it. When Jim notices things malfunctioning (the lift and the hoover for example) and doesn’t catch on that these are signs of bigger problems, he just looks dumb. Jordan Peele faced this issue with Get Out and if you recall from that episode, he consciously caught his protagonist up quickly because he knew that he’d lose his audience if he didn’t.
The fact that it takes a third pod failure to make them realize there’s something wrong with the ship doesn’t add to their credibility.
EPII: Red alert on the ship (immediately after Gus dies). They go to engineering (to look for “something broken, something big”).
EPTPPC: the door won’t stay open by itself.
EPCr: Does Jim hold it open manually, or try to find another solution? We’re led to believe that holding it open manually will be suicide (it’s not), will mean that Aurora will live out her days alone, but will save the 5,000 others on the ship. Finding another solution might mean they all live, or all die.
EPCx: Jim holds open the doors manually…but doesn’t die.
EPRes: They live happily ever after.
All of the scenes in the eding payoff turn on life>death which supports the gut feeling I had that we were now back in an action story.
But honestly, the ending payoff is ridiculous. They’ve been awake for two years and only now start to look for “something broken, something big”? There’s more than one hole in the ship and they have noticed before? Jim doesn’t die when the nuclear reactor vents all over him? Aurora falls in love with Jim—the man who has condemned her—and they live happily ever after? Geez.
Ok, a couple of final notes:
First, there are so many plot holes in this film that it’s like a sieve. And they’re not little pinpricks either. They’re gaping holes that are immediately obvious on first viewing. So what’s the takeaway here? While we might not create a water-tight plot, our job as writers, is to try our best to do so. Only our super fans, who read out books 25 times, should be able to pick up plot problems. Remember, we’re casting a spell here; we’re creating worlds and characters that exist only in our imaginations and we’re inviting our readers to share that story with us. They want to do that—they’re willing to go with us on whatever adventure we want to take them on—but they’re trusting us to write something that is worth their time and money.
And finally, there’s a difference between being inspired by other writers and ripping them off. On the flagship podcast, Anne and Shawn are studying Brokeback Mountain right down to the beat level. The idea is for Anne to be inspired by Annie Proulx’s work; for her to see the how a master craftsperson does her job. There’s a huge difference between that and what the writers of Passengers have done.
Passengers has lifted scenes and elements from other stories and writers. It’s crazy.
The bar and bartender: The Shining
Saving Jim: The Martian (right down to the tether)
Space Walk: Aladdin (even quotes “do you trust me”)
Jennifer Lawrence’s character: Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), “we tell each other stories to know we’re not alone”: (C.S. Lewis – “we read to know we’re not alone”), saw herself growing up in her father’s books (Amy from Gone Girl)
And don’t get me started on the Titanic…
This happened in Crazy Rich Asians too and it me nuts because it’s lazy writing.
Professional authors read widely and deeply, they take inspiration from the masters who have come before them, and they do the hard work of innovating, of levelling up and of mastering the craft themselves.
Leslie – I’m really curious about the distinction between inspiration and homage on the one hand and using something without adding your own interpretation on the other. At some point it would be great to get into the details. We know that Anne isn’t ripping off Annie Proulx because we see her process, but how can we tell in the final product?
Valerie – I thought about this too as I was preparing for today … it’s a big question that would be fascinating to tackle, especially in light of the fact that there are repeating scene types in stories!
Jarie – Can You Have Love Without a Triangle or Helpers/Harmers?
This love story begins on a lie or rather an obsession that Jim has for Aurora because he is lonely. Although I wouldn’t call it an obsession love story, I don’t know if it’s a courtship one either. Can you really have a love story when there are only two characters? I don’t think so.
Well, let me rephrase that. Can you have a love story that works without say, a triangle or secrets on both sides?
The love subplot in Passengers is full of holes. There are a lot of the Conventions of a Love Story that are not present.
Kim – I felt like I was able to find all the Love conventions, with the exception of Triangle. It is interesting to see that at play in a cast of two characters 🙂 The only rival I can find is perhaps the life/adventure Aurora always wanted.
Anne –See, to me, the absence of any rival contributes to the Kidnapping/Hostage feeling. She has no other choices. She can’t possibly “choose” her old life or her dreams or career. I wouldn’t dig too hard to find a “triangle” here–there isn’t one. The love triangle convention exists to prove that true love, when it prevails, has prevailed over other options. I think the failure of this convention lies at the heart of the problem I and so many other viewers had with this movie as a love story.
Jarie – Yes indeed. For subplots, it can sometimes be okay to leave some of them out but like we say in Deep Impact, it leaves us not feeling as much for the characters. That’s the way I felt about Jim and Aurora.
While the lovers meet, first kiss, confession of love, breakup, proof of love, and reuniting are all present. For me, since there is no real barrier to their love or rather falling in love, it’s obvious that if you’re on a spaceship, with one other person, changes are pretty darn good that something is going to happen. This means not triangle or helpers/harmers or Opposing forces. When I say opposing forces, I’m referring to other people and not the environment, which could care less if they got together or not.
There is not a lot of choices that the lovers need to make to be together. That I think is the critical part of any love subplot — there has to be a chance that they will fall in love with someone else or that a past lover makes them question commitment or society forbids the union because they are from different classes.
We see some of the class divide but it’s nothing that can’t easily be overcome by simply breaking down a door or ordering an extra meal. There is no conflict that’s really keeping the lovers apart except for the ship falling apart and the secret that Arthur revealed as to why Aurora is awake.
While those are good, they don’t satisfy me in terms of the main question I feel a love story has to answer — can these two people be together despite all the odds? Those odds be society, themselves, and other people. I don’t think a love story works if what’s keeps the lovers together is a shared demise. I’m sure that would play a part in any reason to fall in love with the only other person in your world or before the end of the world.
Leslie – How is it different if the Love Story is a subplot? What I mean is, if the main question in the story is not about whether the two will come together and if the love story elements are meant to mess with human needs tanks other than that of the global genre, how does that change the way we look at the genre requirements?
Jarie – My take on that is that if it’s a subplot and it’s not driving the story then you can “get away” with less of them. Rather, if the Love subplot is merely for a pause in the action or for comic relief, we give it a pass or find it cute. If the subplot is an integral part of building empathy for the characters or driving the main story forward, then you need to nail the Obligatory Scenes and Conventions.
So what’s the treatment plan for Passengers to make it work as a love story? First off, as it stands now, I don’t think the main genre is love. For me, this is a delayed Action > Environment plot with an internal genre of Morality > Redemption for Jim.
The reason I say it’s a delayed Action > Environment is because that does not truly get going until after the midpoint shift when Authur tell Aurora that Jim woke her up. Even then, it’s slow to develop until we meet Gus and they try and figure out why everything is failing. I think it’s Action > Environment because of the opening scene when Jim’s pod malfunctions because of the meteor strike and the climax scene when Aurora and Jim save the ship.
To make this work as a Love Story, we need more than just the environment keeping the lovers apart. We need more backstory as to the flaws that Jim and Aurora have. We do get a brief look into Aurora’s flaws from the video of her friend telling her to let love into her heart or something like that. It’s not that great and not “on the page”. For love to really work, we need real alternatives for the lovers that are plausible. Usually, that means other people in close proximity.
For me, there was really no doubt that Jim and Aurora would fall in love. Most people, put in that circumstance, would do the same and that’s why Passengers fell flat for me.
Anne – I hated that about it. They “inevitably” fell in love because they were both attractive straight people of a similar age. Jim chose to revive Aurora and not, say, another man, or an older woman, so that the storytellers could tell this twisted love story based on Stockholm Syndrome.
Leslie – Another Take on the Global Genre
I’m looking at Passengers through a different lens, and came up with a different global genre as a result. Right away I was struck by the way one’s need for meaning and purpose, love and belonging, could be taken to life and death stakes.
I would break the acts differently which means that the major dilemma or Crisis Jim faces in each act is different.
In the Beginning Hook, to me the Crisis isn’t about Aurora, but whether Jim will choose to live or die. He enters the airlock with the intention to commit suicide. He decides not to, but if he hadn’t found Aurora, it’s hard to imagine he would have had the will to go on living.
In the Middle Build after his secret is revealed and Jim can’t fix his relationship with Aurora, he finds purpose in fixing things on the ship. Importantly, he would reverse his decision to wake her if he could, he just can’t.
When in the Ending Payoff Jim finds the means to reverse his decision, he offers her the choice, though that would mean he’d be alone again. He’s reconnected with the meaning that comes from within.
What is a Worldview-Education Story?
Friedman’s Cause and Effect Statement: When a sympathetic protagonist, with a naive or cynical outlook, experiences an opportunity or challenge that enlightens them to a broader understanding, they find new meaning in their existing actions.
To create an Education Story, the events and choices move the Life Value from the beginning negative value of MEANINGLESSNESS to the positive value of MEANING. Along the way, the character faces COGNITIVE DISSONANCE when their thoughts on what provides meaning are challenged and often reach the negation of the negation, MEANINGLESSNESS DISGUISED AS MEANING.
People can find meaning in all sorts of environments and conditions, but obviously some situations are easier than others (just as some environments foster survival more than others). When I started thinking about the principle sources of meaning in life I came up with three: (1) who we are (our ideas and beliefs about who we are and why we’re here), (2) what we do (our work but also our moral code), and (3) environment ( our circumstances, but also who we’re with). It occurred to me that these are consistent with Friedman’s three forms of plot: thought, character, and fortune. These sources of meaning are interconnected—an excess in one can prop up a lack in another, but an extreme deficit in one could also negate the existence of another.
Worldview-Education stories are about how people reconnect with the sources of meaning in their lives to give purpose to their actions.
Who is the Protagonist?
The protagonist is a character who is disconnected from the sources of meaning in their life, either because they are naive or because they have suffered a traumatic experience, sometimes both. That’s the status quo state of their thought/worldview, but then their circumstances/fortune offer an opportunity or challenge that gives them a shot at reconnecting to their sources of meaning, and their character/will is strong enough to take advantage of the opportunity or challenge when it’s presented.
This is how I see Jim’s Thought, Circumstances, and Character:
Thought/Worldview: Jim suffers from a naive lack of meaning before we meet him. He left Earth because he was merely a passenger there. If something is broken, people simply replace it. There is no call for his engineering expertise or know-how. He wants to travel to Homestead II because he thinks he can build something there. He could have found meaning in building something on the ship, as he does by the end of the story, but he was unable to overcome his trauma alone.
Circumstances/Fortune: When he is left on the ship alone, he suffers traumatic loss of meaning. His dream is shattered. He probably won’t survive to reach Homestead II, and even if he did, he’d likely be too old to carry out his plans. On top of that, he is alone, except for Arthur, and though he’s delightful, he’s an android. He can’t satisfy Jim’s needs for love and belonging.
Character/Will: At first he tries to fix his problem by reading manuals or waking members of the crew. When that fails, he takes Arthur’s advice to live a little. He tries the wide range of activities available aboard the ship.
By the end of the story, Jim derives meaning from within, and we know this because he is willing to sacrifice first his life and then his life with Aurora.
The thing I see in Education stories is that the key scenes shift some external value (like the Life/Death spectrum of an Action subplot, the Love/Hate spectrum of a Love Story subplot, or the Respect/Shame spectrum of a Performance subplot), but the most important life value shift is about what the character makes of what happens or what it means to them. We see an extreme range of external values because we need to see whether the character can learn to derive meaning from their life no matter what happens. If the character can reach this level of meaning, there is a light or fire within that can’t be put out, no matter what happens—they have learned to source meaning from within. In the real world, I think about people like Viktor Frankl or Anne Frank.
Other aspects of the pattern I’ve identified from story studies:
- The events of the external story are important because they affect the character’s external needs, but what’s more important is how the character views them through their current lens of meaning. A person can endure almost anything when their life has meaning and purpose, under the same circumstances that would crush someone who finds little meaning in their life. After all, what’s the point of facing adversity if there is no point to life.
- There is often more than one external genre subplot in a Worldview-Education Story. As I said in my hypothesis about the sources of meaning, we find meaning in what we do, and that includes our work, and from our environment, which includes our relationships. So it’s not surprising that we see these needs tanks getting poked along the way with Love Story subplots (often Obsession as the character seeks meaning however they can find it), but also Performance elements.
- Often another character experiences a similar crisis of meaning. They may embrace meaning through work, for example, but they find no meaning in their relationships. Aurora left Earth, not because she wanted to start a new life on Homestead II, but to immediately return, to have a great story to tell (one that wouldn’t really be about her).
So for me, the point is that Jim and Aurora are trapped. So many people feel trapped by their current existence. That’s the way they see the world. So what can we do when we feel trapped and have limited choices? We can choose to find meaning in other ways.
Kim – This makes so much sense to me! Thank you for articulating all of this so clearly.
Anne – More middle build scene and beat types. What counts as innovation and is there really any such thing?
I continued my study of scene types this week and grew the database by a few entries. This movie provides a remarkable variety of scene types considering that we have only three characters and a single setting to work with for almost the entire story. It did a lot with the premise, the setting, and the special effects to make some of the more common scene types feel at least somewhat fresh and different.
Still, as you’ll see, there’s a whole lot of cliché around here.
As I notice beat types, I try to validate my observation by scanning the story database in my head for similar examples. As I mentioned earlier, the whole beginning hook was structurally just like Castaway, right down to the analogous human surrogates, Wilson the Volleyball and Arthur the android bartender.
(Valerie mentioned similarities with The Martian, and there, his human surrogate is his journal, which of course can’t provide conversation, but does give him “someone to talk to.”)
Then Jim kidnaps a Real Girl, and the whole thing pivots into an obsession love story.
However, the middle build is packed with short, lively, colorful scenes, so it doesn’t sag in terms of pacing.
There are some good Two-person conversations that turn exposition organically into ammunition. If you need to get information to your reader through dialogue, make sure that one of the characters is realistically under-informed and needs the information, as Aurora does here.
A different sort of two-person conversation arises when it’s a Conversation between a lone drinker and a bartender. This is another clever way of loading dialogue with exposition. Bartenders don’t typically need the information their customers provide, but it’s part of their job to listen, and of course alcohol loosens inhibitions, giving your drinking character a basis for revealing things.
This scene type takes on an interesting variant when Jim confesses to Arthur that he woke Aurora, and binds him to secrecy. It’s structurally equivalent to a character Invoking attorney-client or doctor-patient privilege and then burdening that listener with an unwanted secret.
If you’re minding your setups and payoffs, your bartender, attorney, or shrink will become a complication down the line–and Arthur does launch the midpoint shift by spilling the beans to Aurora. But if you’re committed to a fully-crafted story, your bartender, therapist or lawyer will have a clear reason for betraying the secret later on. That doesn’t happen here. Arthur just…sort of decides to tell. It felt like a major story flaw.
The talking computer interface provides the basis for a series of Bureaucracy scenes. This scene type, which I first named in our Jupiter Ascending episode, creates frustration and delay, usually of a comic type, while telling us something about the society. Here, there’s no humor to speak of, which adds a sinister note. Each time the characters deal with the blank wall of non-answers and obstruction from the corporate computer, the stakes rise until it’s a matter of life or death. If you’re going to repeat a scene type several times, raise the stakes each time, as they did here.
There are two notable meal scenes, a Meal scene of domination, and a Meal scene of intimacy.
In the first, Aurora has access to better food than Jim does, and offers to get him some–a slight upper hand. Then he takes the superior position by shooting her ideas down, and she regains control by leaving the table without having eaten a bite. Denial of hunger is a power move. You see it a lot in meal scenes.
In the second, an intimate fancy dinner serves purely to increase sexual tension.
And here the movie surprised me. Between the intimate dinner and the expected hard cut to a hot and heavy bedroom scene, we get a rarer and more interesting love story scene type that I’m calling The treat that only this lover can provide.
Think of Rocky taking Adrian skating at the ice rink that’s closed for the night in Rocky. Think of Cain taking Jupiter flying above Chicago in Jupiter Ascending. One lover offers the other a unique, risky, beautiful, inspiring, forbidden or thrilling experience–special access required.
Here Jim takes Aurora on a walk in space, and I have to admit, it’s innovative and it sets up a major payoff at the end of the film. Valerie thought it was a hackneyed take on Aladdin, complete with stealing the “do you trust me?” line, which I didn’t catch because I have not seen a Disney film since 1963.
I happened on a love story last week called “Wolves of Karelia” that contained a beautiful written version of this scene type.
M took my hand and led me out to the middle of the frozen lake we’d camped beside in the night. The snowfall had turned it into a pure white field.
“Well?” I said. I wanted to go home. I felt embarrassed.
But M’s face was bright, happy, flashing with something. He dropped to his knees and made big sweeping motions with his arms, clearing the surface of the ice.
I thought I was dreaming. Suddenly we were standing on air. On ice so perfectly clear, it might have been air. Fifty feet below, I could see the algae on the stones at the bottom of the lake.
“It only happens when the water freezes very, very slowly,” M said. “The winter has to be so patient, and then one day there it is, a miracle.” He looked at me, letting out his breath. “I thought you’d like that.”
It’s a lovely story.
Back to Passengers, here are a few more of the notable scene types I detected:
Obsessed lover starts leaving gifts for the beloved. There are two variants: one where the beloved is freaked out by the bizarre, serial-killer like vibe of the offerings, and one where she enjoys the fun gifts. Here it’s the latter. One feels that the former might have been more apt.
Sneaking a Peak. From Jack copping a glance at Ennis’ naked body in Brokeback Mountain, to the sight of a lady’s trim ankle in a frivolous Regency romance, this is the love story moment when sexual attraction becomes evident. Here, it’s Jim catching Aurora in the swimming pool.
They Both Clean Up Well, or The Cinderella Moment. He appears in a nice suit, she appears in a sexy evening dress. Sadly, the script actually has Aurora say, “You clean up pretty well.” It’s embarrassing.
Conversation in a Car. Took me a minute to recognize this one. In a moving vehicle, one person is constrained to listen to the other. They can’t escape. Here, Jim turns their whole world into a car by commandeering the ship’s PA system and forcing Aurora to listen against her will.
Post sex pillow talk.
Birthday party, showing passage of time and increasing intimacy. Note: this is also a Meal Scene of Celebrating Too Soon. The shit’s about to hit the fan.
Man checks pocket for engagement ring, prepares to propose.
After the BIG SHOCKING TRUTH COMES OUT and the lovers break up:
Coming home to an empty apartment. She has moved out and all her clothes are gone, followed by:
Reminiscing sadly over old photos.
Stuck in an elevator alone. He escapes by prying the doors apart halfway between floors.
Then whoa, hang on a sec. There’s the sudden appearance of another live human being. An older, wiser, authoritative Mentor figure, risen from the sleep machine just in time to help them and then die again: almost literally a deus ex machina. Wikipedia informs us that William Golding resolved Lord of the Flies by a similarly unset-up, unexpected, lucky appearance of an older and wiser figure. It’s not common. Nor should it be.
Coughing, coughing, Coughing up blood, this guy is going to die.
Old wise mentor wants to die at his post, in uniform. Breathes his last words to the lovers. Hands over the keys to the kingdom, charges them with finishing the mission.
And we enter the ending payoff, where common scene types and clichés continue to abound.
My conclusion is that the middle build, though mostly lively and with a good variety of scene types that drive the story forward, suffers from a preponderance of clichés in service of a fatally flawed story. And I haven’t even touched on the giant plot holes! No amount of zero gravity scenes or failing systems or love story conventions could have rescued this story for me. My head is still aching from trying to understand why the hell the filmmakers wanted to tell it.
Kim: It’s been so much fun to listen to everyone wrestle with this story. So what’s the major takeaway for writers?
Let’s take a look at the treatment plan and prescription for revisions for today’s story:
- Wholeheartedly choose your genre. Go all in on the story you really want to tell. That is, what is the truth you want to share and the experience you want the audience to have? What genre helps showcase that
- Experiment to find your POV, Narrative Device, and Narrative Drive. Choose the one that helps you tell this story well, to create the audience experience you want to have.
- Create a solid story spine with 15 core scenes that turn on the global life values at stake.
And, like Anne so brilliantly share during the Jupiter Ascending episode, it’s better to take a chance to tell the story you really want to tell than playing it safe with something that doesn’t light you up inside. Be bold and brave and go for it. The world needs your story.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from two students from the Story Grid Ground Your Craft course.
Shannon asks, “I finally found a Masterwork to study, and I have filled in the grid at the chapter level. Next, I will fill in a fresh grid at the beat level, but I have a question about beat titles. Should we be creative in coming up with our beat titles because they are for our personal study, or is there a list of beat types somewhere for reference?”
Robert asks, “What practical application does [identifying beats] have for us moving forward. It is something I should use prior to first drafts or am I better served looking at them in revisions?”
These questions boil down to 1) when and how am I best served by identifying the beats and beat types in my writing process? and 2) what process do I use to name them? What is going to be the most useful?
Anne has been doing amazing work in the Masterwork Experiment and we’d love for her to share her experience using beat analysis.
Anne: Thanks, Robert and Shannon, for these questions. I’ve dived into a deep pool with this subject and I’m honestly not sure I can deliver clear answers yet, but let me give it a try.
Beat or scene type titles seem purely personal and idiosyncratic. I just make ’em up for my own use. I try to come up with something abstract and universal enough to encompass a wide variety of settings and stories.
So for instance, in today’s episode I identified “The Treat That Only This Lover Can Provide” (which I was quite pleased with), but sometime in the night it occurred to me that this same scene type could happen in other than a love story, say between a parent and child or a mentor and pupil. Is there a difference in intent, or can we employ this scene type to enhance attachment and intimacy between any two characters? I’m not sure yet, but the answer might affect the name, as you can see.
Is there a list somewhere? Valerie and I are trying to build one, and so far it’s just a big messy spreadsheet. You can view it here.
As to the value of identifying beat or scene types in our own writing, I can make two pretty solid statements from my experience so far.
First, training that lens on stories does tend to ruin them for me. But it allows me to tease story systems apart. Pardon the image, but seems a bit like dissecting a cadaver. This is the circulatory system, this is the muscular system, these are the nerves, these are the bones. Every system runs throughout the entire story body, and each contributes something essential to the living being that a good story is. I don’t know which system the scene types represent–the metaphor won’t go that far and we shouldn’t try to make it.
Second, in actual writing, I’ve found scene or beat type useful so far mostly as a writing prompt. I’ve got a set of scene or beat types I have to borrow from Brokeback Mountain for my experimental novella, and yes, they do give me some guidance. If I have to create my “Sneaking a Peak” beat–which I do–that eliminates all the million things I could be writing about and limits me to one. But while I’m actually writing the scene, the idea of beat type or scene type disappears again, and I probably won’t come back to it till a first draft is done. Then in rewrites, I might use it to square some things up.
To summarize, start with super familiar, common scene types like Conversation in a Car. Strip away specifics from the story you’re reading or watching and try to get down to the most abstract or universal components, those that you can imagine transposing to a completely different story. Try to think whether a scene type you’ve discovered in a love story could have a place in another genre. Some are obviously more genre-specific than others.
Until we have an official Story Grid list of officially-named scene types (which we’re far from having yet), use a name that makes sense to you.
I hope this helps. There’s a lot more work to be done in this area, and we’re on the job! We hope you will be too.
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.
Join us next time to find out whether the book or the movie is tastier as Anne takes us through Like Water for Chocolate as an example of adapting a novel to film. 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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