Editor Roundtable: Primal Fear

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This week, Valerie pitched Primal Fear as an example of a psychological thriller, in order to understand what makes that particular subgenre tick. This 1996 film was directed by Gregory Hoblit from a screenplay by Steve Shagan and Ann Biderman, based on the 1993 novel by William Diehl. It stars Richard Gere, Laura Linney, and a young Edward Norton in his first feature film role.

We have a content warning today: This film revolves around the crimes of brutal murder and sexual abuse. Some of the clips included in today’s episode contain strong language. Also, this is one of our episodes where, even more than usual, you will benefit from watching the film first. You’ll want to feel the twist before Valerie breaks it down for you, so I recommend viewing it first.

The Story

Global Genre: Psychological Thriller (Secondary internal genre Worldview > Revelation, but not well developed)

  • Beginning Hook – When Archbishop Rushman is murdered, Martin Vail recognizes the opportunity for public notoriety and decides to take on the high profile case, defending the suspect (Aaron/Roy) even though his story is rice-paper thin.
  • Middle Build – Martin’s defence, that there was a third man in the room at the time of the murder, is failing and he’s losing the case. However, when he learns that the Archbishop forced Aaron to make sex tapes, and that Aaron’s personality has splintered because of it, he must decide whether to try and introduce the video into the case (and demonstrate insanity) or continue with the third man defence. He decides to manipulate Janet into admitting the video.
  • Ending Payoff – When the videotape is introduced in court, and Roy appears (which means Martin wins his case), Martin must decide whether or not to admit that he manipulated Janet. He admits it, but sees nothing wrong with it since, in his opinion, justice was served. However, he discovers that there is no dual personality at play here and that Roy has been manipulating him all along. 

The Principle – Valerie

For my Season 5 picks, I’ve chosen to study psychological thrillers because that’s what I’m writing. I want to pull them apart and see what makes them tick. How are they the same, or different, from other thriller genres? What things do I need to keep in mind as I write my own psychological thriller?

My study is leading me down a fascinating path. Stories evolve over time and without initially realizing it, I’ve stumbled upon a genre that is in the process of a significant shift. I’ll talk about that more in upcoming episodes, but for now we’ll start with a look at Primal Fear since that’s the example Shawn gives in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know

As a thriller, this film has all the elements that you’d expect it to have. I’ve done a full Editor’s Six Core Questions Analysis below, but will highlight some of the key points. Even before I get to that, I want to take a giant step backwards for just a minute and take a look at genre.

I’m discovering that when it comes to genre, writers fall into two categories; those who start out with a favourite genre that they want to write in, and those who start out with an idea and then have to figure out which genre that story idea falls into, or will help them tell it best. So, how do we do that?

What makes Primal Fear a thriller, rather than a courtroom crime story? And within the thriller genre, what makes it psychological rather than legal?

Thriller v. Crime Story: Since the thriller genre is an amalgam of action, crime and horror, there’s obviously overlap in the obligatory scenes and conventions. It’s easy to confuse Primal Fear for a courtroom crime story because there’s been a crime, the protagonist is a lawyer and a significant part of the story takes place in a courtroom. 

It’s also easy to think that the global spectrum of value is justice/injustice and the core emotion is intrigue. But, if you scratch the surface just a bit, you’ll see that the core value and core emotion are quite different. This story is less about the crime and more about the protagonist, which is ironic given that there isn’t a clear or fully developed internal genre here. 

I see the internal genre as worldview > revelation because of the information we learn in the last scene. It causes Martin to learn something about himself that he didn’t know before. His worldview of himself has shifted. Everyone else had his number; Janet certainly knows what kind of man he is, so does John Shaughnessy and of course Roy. Martin doesn’t have a clear view of himself until the end. Kim is going to talk about that more in a minute, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Global Spectrum of Value: Primal Fear is really a story about Martin Vail and his descent into damnation, and we don’t truly understand that until the very last scene. If we’re not actively watching this film as writers and looking at the story structure, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this story is about justice, and whether it is just to condemn a man, with a mental illness, to death for a crime he isn’t aware that he’s committed. 

This is where the Editor’s Six Core Questions come in handy. This is how and why Shawn developed them in the first place. If you look at the 15 Core Scenes, you can see them shifting on the life > damnation value, rather than the justice > injustice value. It’s fascinating stuff. 

Core Emotion: Primal Fear is an intriguing story, no doubt about that, but we’re not really trying to solve the crime. There’s no doubt that the suspect committed the crime. The only doubt is whether he is sane or insane. Does he have a split personality, or not? Is Aaron aware of what Roy has done? So yes, I’d say that Primal Fear borrows heavily from the core emotion of crime, but it’s also exciting. The intrigue we experience is not about whodunnit, it’s about Aaron’s sanity. 

Hero, Victim, Villain: Also, a key element of the thriller is that the protagonist becomes the victim. This doesn’t happen with crime stories. Martin Vail has been Roy’s victim all along, we just didn’t realize it until the last scene. 

Psychological Thriller v. Legal Thriller: Ok, so to determine which genre our story idea falls into, we look at these big concepts like global spectrum of value, core emotion and key distinctions between similar genres. But how do you know which subgenre to choose?

William Diehl could have written Primal Fear as a crime story, or as a legal thriller. No problem. But the thing he’s exploring here is the protagonist’s descent into damnation, through his interaction with a man who may or may not be insane. Martin Vail is an egotistical, manipulative, attention-seeking lawyer. He knows that he’s arrogant, but he sees that as a charming personality quirk. Roy uses those traits against him.

When Shawn was sorting thrillers into subgenres, his initial thought about the psychological thriller, is that it involves a medical diagnosis of some sort. It’s all about whether the villain is clinically insane and, if they were evaluated by someone in the medical profession, would they be, or could they be, diagnosed with a mental illness. This is why he offers Primal Fear as an example of the psychological thriller; Frances McDormand’s character (Molly) diagnoses Aaron as having a split personality. Of course, whether this is true or not is never definitively answered. There are definitely two personas, Aaron and Roy, and Roy is definitely manipulating Martin Vail and Molly, but even when Roy says that there never was Aaron, it’s hard to know whether to believe him.

Understanding the distinctions between these genres and subgenres is easier when you’re looking at a completed film or novel. That’s why it’s so important to study lots of different genres. There’s no other way to fully understand how this works. Then, when an idea pops into your head, you already have a foundational knowledge of the genres, and you have a list of examples. There is absolutely no substitute for this kind of study.

The Editor’s Six Core Questions + 15CS

    1. Global Genre: Psychological Thrillers (Global Spectrum of Value: Life to Damnation (fate worse than death)). Martin Vail shifts from the positive (life) all the way to the fate worse than death. 
  • Obligatory Scenes and Conventions:
      1. An inciting crime indicative of a master villain. There must be victims: Archbishop Rushman is murdered (multiple stab wounds, book reference carved into chest); Linda
      2. Speech in praise of the villain (speech by a character, or a revelation, that praises the cunning/brilliance of the villain): The very end scene when Roy reveals his plan. Until then, no one is aware that things aren’t what they seem (although they should be given the discussion re two-faced characters).
      3. The hero/protagonist becomes the victim (a scene reveals that the villain makes his crimes personal to the hero and the hero becomes the primary victim): final scene, Martin Vail realizes that he’s been played. Roy has been manipulating him all along. 
      4. The hero at the mercy of the villain (the core event of the thriller, the all is lost moment when the hero unleashes his gift): Vail is at Roy’s mercy from the outset.
      5. False ending (there must be two endings): (1) Trail is stopped and Aaron will be sent to a hospital for help. There’s a good chance he’ll be released “someday soon”. (2) Martin realizes that Aaron doesn’t exist; that Roy has been manipulating him and that he’s helped a killer go free. (Archbishop and Linda)
      6. MacGuffin (this is the villain’s object of desire, what he wants): Roy wants to be free.
      7. Investigative Red Herrings (seemingly revelatory false clues that mislead the protagonist): lost time, third person in the room, multiple personality disorder, lack of motive, Aaron, no confession, no prior motive, no eye witnesses
      8. Making it personal (the villain needs the hero to get the MacGuffin and thus must victimize the hero to get what he wants): Roy wants to be free, so he needs Martin to defend him and get him off. 
      9. Clock (there is a limited time for the hero to act – failing to act burns precious time): The trial creates the ticking clock. 
    1. POV: Primarily from Martin Vail’s point of view (3rd Person Limited), but there are strategic passages without him that put the audience in a position of dramatic irony (for example, revelation of Roy, revelation that Janet doesn’t have another motive).
    2. Objects of Desire: Martin Vail wants notoriety. He wants to continue to elevate his career and his status within the legal community. Roy wants to get away with murder. 
    3. Controlling Idea/Theme: Damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift. Martin is a great lawyer but he fails to use his knowledge of the law to win his case. Instead, he relies on a stunt; he gets Janet to aggravate Aaron so that Roy will emerge and the case will be stopped.
  • 15 Core Scenes:
  1. BH – Inciting Incident:  Archbishop Rushman is murdered. (global value shift: Archbishop’s death)
  2. BH – Turning Point: Aaron mentions a third man.
  3. BH – Crisis: Does Martin believe him or not?
  4. BH – Climax: Martin decides that it doesn’t matter if it’s true. (global value shift (BH TP, Crisis and Climax all in one scene): Martin’s declaration that he doesn’t care if Aaron is innocent directly contradicts the opening statement he gave to the journalist. Martin, like Aaron and the Archbishop, has two faces – and Aaron/Roy knows it.)
  5. BH – Resolution:  Martin tells his staff about the case. (global value shift: Taking the case with “a bullshit story” because he wants the public notoriety slides Vail further toward damnation.)
  6. MB – Inciting Incident: Martin and Aaron go over what will happen in court. Martin lays down the law; it doesn’t matter if Aaron is guilty or innocent, Aaron isn’t to speak just look innocent. (global value shift: Martin is falling further into Roy’s trap. It isn’t about justice being done (as it would be if this were a crime story), it’s about Martin winning a case. Guilt or innocence is irrelevant. Winning is the only important thing.)
  7. MB – Turning Point: Martin learns that the Archbishop used the kids at Savior House to make pornography. He steals the video rather than disclosing the information. Midpoint shift. (global value shift: justice isn’t Vail’s priority, it’s winning the case for the benefit of his career. Stealing the tape moves him closer to damnation) – discovery of Roy (physical movement toward death as Roy beats him up)
  8. MB – Crisis: Now that Martin knows about Roy and that Aaron did kill Rushman, what does he do? (global value shift: Martin’s concern is that he doesn’t have a case.)
  9. MB – Climax: Martin decides to redefine who the victim is in this crime. (global value shift: Martin believes that Aaron is innocent and doesn’t deserve to die, so he chooses to send the tape to Janet – the ends are justifying the means)
  10. MB – Resolution: Martin meets Janet, manipulates her (he knows she doesn’t have another motive) and tries to seduce her (as he did at the benefit dinner and at the scene of the crime, and as he will in the ending payoff). He knows she’s trapped between him and Shaughnessy.
  11. EP – Inciting Incident: Martin allows Thomas Goodman to testify and reveal what is on the videotape. 
  12. EP – Turning Point: Roy appears in court. (global value shift: Martin’s questioning of Aaron makes him vulnerable to Janet’s cross-examination. He has intentionally set up a situation for Roy to appear.)
  13. EP – Crisis: After Martin wins the case (Aaron is to be sent to a hospital for treatment and will likely be released in a month), Janet confronts him and accuses him of using her. Does he admit that he did, or continue the charade?
  14. EP – Climax: He admits that he used her, but says that he had no choice, and that what he did wasn’t so terrible. He turns his behaviour around to a back-handed compliment of Janet’s abilities and commitment to her career and to justice. Once again, he’s manipulating her. Martin admits that he’s arrogant and asks Janet to be with him again. She refuses and they go their separate ways. 
  15. EP – Resolution: 
    1. Aaron is considered a sick young man and the victim of the archbishop’s crimes. He will be given the help he needs and eventually freed, presumably better off than he was before. Martin promises to stay on top of  the case.
    2. There is no Aaron, there’s only Roy, and he’s been manipulating Martin from the very start (just like Martin has been manipulating Janet). Martin shifts from the hero to the victim.

Ok, so what are the key lessons we can learn about psychological thrillers from Primal Fear?

Hero, Victim, Villain: In this case, we have clear hero, victim, villain roles that are constantly shifting from character to character. They shift so much that we’re always asking ourselves who the hero, victim and villain are, and I personally find that fascinating. Note, that this is one of the ways that narrative drive is created in the story.

Martin Vail is established as the hero; he’s our protagonist, flawed and unlikeable though he is. But he’s also the victim, as he must be in a thriller. 

Aaron is simultaneously the villain and the victim of abuse. This ends up being Vail’s defence strategy.

The Archbiship is the victim of the murder, but also the villain where the altar boys and Linda are concerned. 

Pinero is twice victimized by authorities presumably because of his villainous behaviour, but is a hero to his community. 

John Shaughnessy is a hero to all the people calling him for help, but is most definitely a villain.

Janet, as the prosecutor, is a force of antagonism for Vail, but she’s also a victim for Shaughnessy and Yancy. Since we eventually realize that Roy is a cold-blooded killer, Janet is also a hero to the people for trying to put him away.

With these fluid roles, everyone is manipulating everyone else. The possible exception here is Janet. She’s calling the others out and holding a mirror up to them, showing them who they are. But she’s not actively manipulating anyone.

Two-Faced Characters: Because of these shifting roles, we have a number of two-faced characters; people who appear to be one way publicly but another way privately.

The Archbishop is both a religious man and pillar of the community, and child abuser. 

Aaron is an innocent altar boy and serial killer. 

Shaughnessy both keeps and breaks the law. 

And so on.

Martin Vail, who is utterly convinced of his own righteousness right to the bitter end, is as two-faced as the rest. Everyone sees it but him.

In public he gives speeches about his client’s innocence until proven guilty, he reprimands a cop for calling Aaron The Butcher Boy, he seeks public attention and pontificates to the journalist at every opportunity. 

In private, he refers to Aaron as The Butcher Boy and says that Aaron’s bullshit story is now “our bullshit story”, he makes multiple attempts to manipulate Janet with varying degrees of success. 

Unaware Protagonist: Martin Vail does not see himself for who he really is. Everyone around him can see it (and they use it to their advantage), but he’s blind to it. He chooses to believe that he’s a stand-up guy. Sure, he knows that he likes the public attention and the money, but he believes that he is nonetheless a champion for the oppressed. 

His arrogance is his Achilles Heel, but he believes it’s a charming quirk of his personality (and says as much to Janet). 

When he first meets Aaron he says: “You know who I am? I’m what they call a big shot attorney.” Of course Aaron/Roy knows who he is, but he plays dumb. He uses it against him.

Kim: Question for Valerie about whose sanity we’re questioning in a psychological thriller — the protagonist, the villain, or the victim???

Valerie: This is a terrific question, and one that I asked myself when I started my initial study into this sub-genre. When Shawn wrote The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know, he was thinking about the villain. However, the genre is in the middle of a shift and so this question of sanity/insanity is starting to apply to the protagonist and victim too. I’ll be talking more about this in upcoming episodes.

So, in the beginning hook, Vail tells the journalist, Connerman, that people think defence attorneys are creeps because they defend creeps. Then he says that he doesn’t care if his client is guilty or innocent, he doesn’t even ask. 

Compare this with another scene with the journalist later in the film – they’re sitting in the same bar, it’s the same set up. This time, rather than being a piece of bravado, it’s a confession (of sorts). Who does he confess to? A journalist – i.e., the public. But he threatens to sue if the journalist actually uses it.

He says that he chooses to believe that some good people do bad things because when he worked for Shaughnessy, he did something illegal but he’s a good guy, therefore not all crimes are committed by bad people.

His big a-ha moment about himself, his big confession, is that he’s a good guy, doing the right thing for the right reason. He truly believes this to be true. Going into the ending payoff, he still doesn’t understand that everything he does is selfish. It’s all about him. He’s always defending himself. 

He’s so completely convinced of his own superiority (legally and morally) that when  he’s caught off-guard by the link to The Scarlet Letter, he blames his staff for not doing their jobs. He says that he believes Aaron is innocent (which is quite a shift from his initial comments that innocence or guilt is irrelevant).

That’s why the last scene is such a shock to him, and by extension, to the audience. We have been as blinded as Vail. We haven’t understood that Roy has been manipulating him all along.

Jarie:  Why do you think they shifted his attitude on that? It seems so odd since that’s Martin’s only redeeming value or rather his character constant — it does not matter guilt or innocence. So frustrating. 

Valerie: I’ve been thinking about it, Jarie, but I don’t have a solid answer. The film is quite different from the book, and I’m sure it’s the book that Shawn had in mind when he made the recommendation in The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know. I think it’s a problem with the film to be honest.

Hero At The Mercy Of The Villain (HATMOV) Innovation: This is the core scene of the thriller. Usually a story builds to this one scene but in Primal Fear, Vail has been at Roy’s mercy from the first time they meet. Sure there are a couple of obvious scenes to point to, for example, when Roy physically attacks Vail in the interrogation room. But, to limit the HATMOV to this scene would be missing the point. In a way, this whole story can be seen as one big HATMOV scene. 

Global Value Shift and Global Stakes: What does “damnation” mean in the value shift? It can mean that the physical self is in jeopardy (for example, in Dracula Lucy becomes a vampire, an undead), but more often than not, it’s an indication that the character’s soul is on the line. It’s a living hell. It’s a fate worse than death. For example, in The Fundamentals of Caring, we saw Ben having to live with the knowledge that he had a hand in his son’s death. That is a living hell. His own death would have been a mercy to him because he’d have been out of his misery. What he has to do is learn to live with it; learn that life does go on.  

So, what’s at stake here is Martin Vail’s soul. His physical safety is at risk sometimes, for example, when Roy attacks him in the interrogation room. But really, when you look at the 15 Core Scenes, you can see him slipping toward spiritual damnation, not physical death.

Plot Holes: The videotape is a major plot element in this story, but it’s fraught with problems and that is a huge weakness in the story. I’m still reading the novel, so I’m not sure if Diehl does a better job of it than the screenwriters. 

In a story like this, with a huge revelation at the end, the audience’s mind instantly spirals back over everything they’ve been told. When done properly, there should be a whole new understanding of the story. For example, The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. I think it works in Primal Fear, but not as well as it should, and that’s because there are too many loose ends with respect to that video. 

In the beginning hook Captain Abel Stenner goes directly to the Archbishop’s video cabinet and pulls out the sermon video. He’s not randomly looking around. This is a deliberate action, as though he’s checking to see if that particular video is there. The story cuts away from this and it’s forgotten until the midpoint shift when Alex tells Martin what the Archbishop was up to. 

Vail then goes to the scene of the crime, finds the video with ease (note, this is not a working scene), steals it and then gets it admitted as evidence into the trial. He’s never reprimanded for having stolen evidence, or for not disclosing the information when he got it. And, it doesn’t make any sense that Stenner would look for the tape and then leave it there! It’s all very bizarre.

Other Perspectives

Kim – Internal Genre

The internal genre is broken so controlling idea / theme is broken so the viewers satisfaction is broken. Thrillers depend on internal genres to work. 

The last time we looked at a Thriller was in Season Four with Rear Window, where I examined the role the Internal Genre plays in a Thriller story. Unlike it’s ingredient genres–Action, Crime, Horror–a Thriller story requires the protagonist to experience an internal arc in order for it to work. 

Shawn writes, “The Thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism.”

So in order to do that, they must CHANGE. This internal change for the protagonist becomes a Convention and is integrated as a “means of turning the plot”, which means that it directly affects whether or not the protagonist defeats the villain.

In a prescriptive tale, the internal change is either the thing they need, or gives them access to the thing they need. 

In a cautionary tale, like Primal Fear, where the hero does not triumph over antagonism, their internal genre arc is a key aspect to that reason. And it seems to me to be even more imperative that this change is clear in a cautionary tale, so we can understand why they fail. 

Because if a Thriller is “all about one individual negotiating a complex world”, and their failure to negotiate it well allows death/injustice to triumph, then it is that failure the story is largely about. 

When it comes to the Controlling Idea / Theme, the external and internal genres are co-dependent. They are only meaningful when combined. So when the Internal genre is broken, the Controlling Idea/Theme is broken, and when that happens the viewers’ satisfaction is lucky to be found. 

For me, this is the major problem with Primal Fear. Martin Vail’s character is all over the damn place! Trying to follow his internal elements was like trying to follow a pinball. 

  • Character – Is he selfish or altruistic? Does he have a solid moral code that he’s following (even if it bends/breaks rules) or is really about whatever serves him at the time? Ends justify the means? 
  • Thought – we know he’s arrogant and thinks he’s the best / right / going to win / can’t lose, yada yada. But what about his belief systems? He left the DA years back due to it conflicted with his morality–which is a pretty big plot element to bring in for it to not matter–
  • Clearly he doesn’t know the truth about Aaron (but that wasn’t supposed to matter to him anyway, right?) until the end — so that fits well with a Revelation arc, but because we learn that truth in the final scene of the film (the Resolution), we don’t see him take any action on it, either by applying it positively (wisdom) or not (surrendering to it in a way, like falling back into Cognitive Dissonance). Because we don’t get this piece of the arc, it feels more like Disillusionment to the viewer, but something about that is off, too. 
  • Fortune – we know he’s rich and that matters to him, he’s never really at risk of losing any of that and yet by the end when he learns the truth, it feels like Selling Out. He gets prestige maybe for winning? But it is meaningless because he was duped? 

Ping! He’s arrogant and doesn’t believe in the truth 

Ping! He’s looking for the truth and working hard to help an innocent kid because he believes he didn’t do it. 

Ping! He doesn’t care if his clients are innocent. 

Ping! He believes in the constitution “innocent until proven guilty”. 

Ping! Ping! Ping! Ping!

Jarie:  I felt the same way. Martin is a caricature of a “principled lawyer” that just says the most on the nose stuff. Maybe it’s the way Richard Gere plays him but he is so unlikeable. I mean Tom Cruise did a better job in The Firm to make a cocky lawyer at least likable.

Kim: Right? So with Martin Vail the big question for me came down to: is he starting at selfishness masked as altruism? Or is he reformed from a troubled past and now abides his moral code, even if it bends the rules? 

When Valerie pointed out the thematic elements of being two-faced, hypocrisy, different in public vs private that made a lot of sense I really dig that notion as a theme for a cautionary tale. But the problem is even in being two-faced or wishy-washy, the filmmakers missed the mark. 

Is he supposed to be like Bruce Wayne and Batman? Shallow Playboy by day but Dark Defender of Justice by night? Where the player is the act, but deep down he cares, righting the wrongs of the past?? Or is it meant to be self-serving??

If Martin Vail’s internal elements had adhered more closely to a specific pattern of meaning, rather than the Jackson Pollock fest we got here, it could have worked, and would have been on theme, which would have helped with the gigantic hole I’m feeling in the Big Meta Why.

I don’t know how to feel about it because I don’t know how the protag feels about it. What mattered to him this entire time?? And what matters to him now??

So maybe that’s the cautionary tale? 

A Fate Worse Than Death occurs when your values, thought, character, and motives are inconsistent/constantly changing to the point when you don’t even know when you’re lying to yourself. 

That rings true in the Big Meta Why sense, but it still doesn’t make for a satisfying story. And for me, for a story to work, you gotta have both. 

So what can we writers learn from this? 

Well it depends on a couple things: are you trying to craft a first draft or are you evaluating an existing draft? And are you a plotter or a pantser? 

Here is the way my brain walks through it from the plotter trying to craft a first draft perspective (bear in mind, I’m making a lot of assumptions for the sake of the example): 

#1 what’s the global genre? I want to tell some kind of crime story story court room drama about a gruesome murder with a crazy twist. Cool. Thriller. 

#2 what is the major C&OS of a Thriller? Hero / Victim / Villain. It’s always a good idea to start with your villain / force of antagonism. Great. I want to have a character who is concealing a fake multi-personality disorder. 

From here think about your victim and your hero. Who are they? How do they connect to the villain? 

What is your Core Moment scenes? For Thriller it’s HATMOV. Brainstorm ideas around that.

#3 Do you want to tell a prescriptive or cautionary tale? Basically, does the story end positively or negatively? Know this is essential for pairing with the right internal genre. In this case, I know I want a cautionary tale. The villain is going to fool everyone including the hero and reveal it in the end. 

#4 which internal genre would be the best fit for the protagonist to achieve this ending? Think about the internal arcs that end negatively: 

  • Status-Pathetic
  • Status-Tragic
  • Worldview-Disillusionment
  • Worldview-Revelation (sometimes)
  • Morality-Punitive
  • Morality-Testing-Surrender

Try some genres on your protagonist and see how they feel. How would they need to be at the end of the story? How would this change directly impact the Global Thriller plot? How then would they need to begin the story, and what changes would occur in the Global Genre that would intersect with the Internal? 

Valerie: This is really interesting, Kim. I can totally see what you’re getting at here, and as I was saying a minute ago to Jarie, I’m not sure why they chose to represent Vail this way – and I’m not fully convinced it works here. And of course, the novel is quite different than the film so I’m curious to see how William Diehl handled the arc in the book.

I have a hypothesis that I’m forming – I have no idea if it will turn out to be true or not, but I’m curious as to what I’ll find. I suspect that I’ll see a lot of the psychological thriller + worldview>revelation genre pairing, and that the revelation at the end of the story will tip us off as to whether the character in question is actually sane or insane. 

#5 Reverse engineer Friedman’s Framework.

  • Status-Pathetic – lowly status looking to rise / no mentor / fails / sells out their moral code
  • Status-Tragic – ambitious / looking to rise / no mentor / makes a mistake / sells out their moral code
  • Worldview-Disillusionment – blind believer to disillusioned, stuck with goals/actions that no longer hold meaning
  • Worldview-Revelation (sometimes) – ignorance masked as knowledge, expert to learning new factual information that they must decide how to apply (wisdom)
  • Morality-Punitive – may start out in self-interest or higher, falls to selfishness, then selfishness masked as altruism, does not make sacrifice and receives just deserts for actions
  • Morality-Testing-Surrender – generally begins at self-interest, has an opportunity that tests their moral code, they struggle but in the end choose selfiness

Narrow down your ideas and ultimately PICK ONE

#6 Draft the Global Thriller story intentionally anchoring it to the Internal Genre you chose for your protagonist. 

#7 Evaluate the Draft – does it work? From here you can put the Story Grid tools to work to determine how to change and/or calibrate your Global Thriller Genre and Companion Internal Genre. 

One thing that became clearer to me as I was jotting down these steps was the specificity of the protagonist’s Wants and Needs. That is precisely what was missing from Martin Vail’s character. What did he really want and what did he really need? What were his Objects of Desire? What were his goals? What was his global essential action? The inconsistency of this aspect of his character on the micro level directly translated to the meh feeling I had on a global level. And vice versa. 

Refer to FF Post for Writing a Global Internal Genre Story that Works, which will give you lots of great tools for writing internal genres of any scope. 

Anne:  The critics weren’t wrong: 47/100 means the story doesn’t work

This is one of those stories that I enjoyed right up to the end, and then, in the last scene, I felt cheated.

Here’s a relevant comment from the film critic at the Washington Post: “The special twist–which Paramount Pictures has implored critics not to divulge–redefines the story completely. It also ruins everything.” 

That’s exactly how I felt. 

Of the novel this film was based on, Kirkus Reviews said: “And so the story goes, tick-tocking along, with clever, challenging courtroom scenes filling it out until the verdict arrives–and, with it, one last bombshell. A big, efficient thriller-machine–slick and melodramatic– with every cog whirring at top speed but with little élan vital. It’ll make a great movie, though.”

It didn’t, in my view. The metacritic score on the movie is a dismal 47 out of 100, suggesting that I’m not alone in this feeling.

I can’t help noting that terms like “élan vital” are just the sort of vague, meaningless feedback that comes from critique groups–only in French, so it’s fancy. The reviewer at Kirkus is just saying “It didn’t really work for me,” but why didn’t it? 

Kim and Valerie have done a great job of being much more specific, and therefore much more valuable to writers. 

Since I’m focusing on novels this season, I did read part of the original novel Primal Fear by William Diehl, and I looked at some reviews. 

A few differences between novel and film leaped out: Vail in the novel is a complete slob, arrogant enough to be poorly dressed both in and out of the courtroom. Substituting the handsome, Armani-suited Richard Gere changed the character considerably. It makes him look like he has a lot more to lose, in worldly terms, which strongly hints at Status or Morality as the internal genre. At no point did I think to myself, wow this guy is missing key information that he should be paying attention to–that is, that there was a revelation plot going on here–until the very last scene, which felt to me completely un-foreshadowed. 

Sure, a more careful or second viewing might have shown me a little foreshadowing, but what the heck. It’s a thriller. I don’t pick up a thriller to go deep, or to study closely, or think all that hard. I pick up a thriller to escape.

In the novel, Vail’s previous stunning victory over the city of Chicago has made the powers that be so angry at him that they force him to take Aaron Stampler’s defense pro bono, whereas in the movie he seeks the job out because it will add to his fame. He’s so sure he can win a not-guilty verdict on circumstantial evidence that he never even considers an insanity plea. Pride goes before a fall, etc. Again, it feels like Status or Morality. 

As to the Big Meta Why that Kim was discussing, I’m reminded of a user review I once read, probably on IMDB, about the police procedural TV show Criminal Minds. This viewer’s sincere takeaway from the show was that it teaches us how dangerously full of serial killers the world is, and how we must be ever-vigilant and protect our children. That was her Big Meta Why for what’s essentially a fantasy show about infallible investigators with their own private jet, bringing monstrous evildoers to justice at a rate of 22 per year (for 15 years).

If the Big Meta Why defines what we’re drawn to in different story types…well, surely we’re not drawn to a psychological thriller because we need to be aware of Multiple Personality Disordered killers all around us. Like the Archbishop himself, we may SAY there’s an exorcising quality to these stories, but really, don’t we just watch them to get off? (so to speak.)

Valerie: Anne, I’m just thinking out loud here, but maybe we’re not meant to know exactly how to feel. Maybe we’re supposed to be destabilized by it. It’s an open-ended film, which I think is more common in films from other countries. It’s certainly not typical of Hollywood films. 

Anne: That’s a really good point. Here’s where I think I differ with you on it. In those not-so-Hollywood and foreign stories, an ambiguous ending is usually set up by ambiguity throughout. It invites the viewer or reader to muse over what they believe really happened. 

One instance that springs to mind is the final scene of Call Me By Your Name. The young protagonist, having learned that his older lover has decided to get married, stares into the fire for an unbroken shot lasting something like two full minutes, an eternity in movie time.

The acting in it is such that you can see the changes of emotion on the protagonist’s face, but it’s up the viewer to bring their own feelings and conclusions to the story. Will he suffer heartbreak for long? Is he deciding to put his foot down and get the guy back? Is he thinking the whole affair was a mistake? Is he embracing all he’s learned during the summer?

“What would you feel?” the open ending seems to be asking us, and we feel like we’re free to mull it over and decide.

But in the case of Primal Fear, we’re set up for a thriller, and thrillers, on the whole, are supposed to leave us satisfied at an ending where justice is done. They leave ambiguity, if any, to the protagonist’s internal genre. I could see that Martin Vail was damned by the surprising revelation at the end, but very little leading up to that ending made it feel inevitable. It raised questions that I can’t answer from within my own emotions or beliefs. 

Questions like, If Roy was so smart, how come he didn’t start with insanity? If he’s so smart, why does he show his hand in the final scene? I couldn’t think of a single reason, except to add an unsatisfying and jarring twist for the viewer. How does he know so much about Martin Vail’s ego that he’s able to play him from their very first meeting? And Why is it called Primal Fear? They retained the title because the book was a bestseller, but they seem to have lost any reason for it.

Maybe answers are in there. Maybe, if I go back over the movie–which I’ll freely admit I wasn’t engaged enough to do–I might see some of the subtle setups that I felt were missing.

But here’s the thing: It’s an external-genre story with all the Hollywood trappings, and it didn’t do its job. Earlier, Valerie talked about how easy it is to fall into the trap of thinking that this story is about justice–essentially a crime and courtroom story. My quibble is: if it’s easy to fall into that trap, and if we have to trot out the Editor’s Six Core Questions in order to grasp it, hasn’t it failed? 

Certainly there are stories that work because they make us work, and signal to us from the outset that they aren’t going to hand us everything on a platter. This movie started out handing us everything, and then reneged on expectations. 

This is Story Grid 101 stuff. Nail your external and internal genres and your story will work. Fiddle around with them too much, and you wind up with a Metacritic score of 47.

Leslie: I love this emphasis, Anne, because analyzing stories the way we do is not about getting an A in Story Grid, it’s about understanding what makes a story work or not so we can write better stories. 

Jarie – Ex Lovers + Self Loving narcissist psychopaths

Aw. Lawyers, politicians, and priests—the trifecta of psychopaths. All three are in Time’s top ten list of professions with the most psychopaths and dare I say the most narcissists. 

Leslie: Ahem, after viewing this film, we know the dangers of making assumptions. Knowing you, I’m going to assume present company excepted where lawyers are concerned. People love to hate us until they need us.  

Jarie: Of course. Present company excluded and yes, we love to hate lawyers unless they are our lawyers. Love you lots Leslie!

This is the perfect setup for the type of love we’ll look at in Primal fear — Ex Lovers and Self Love.

There is nothing better than seeing two type A never-want-to-lose-or-be-vulnerable people do the mating dance. It adds such a sense of egocentric narcissism and a sensibility that all lawyers, no matter the side, are intolerable to have a normal conversation with like this exchange between Martin and Janet.

Can you feel the sexual tension in the air? How about those lines? Simply priceless and I’m sure work on so many women. I think this is a great example, although cheesy, of a Lovers Fail to Reunite Scene. It’s similar to the Love Story convention of Lovers Reunite scene yet this reunion must fail or the tension between the ex lovers won’t make the desired impact.

This scene shows us the kind of people Martin and Janet are. It’s no surprise that this is early in the story to put the idea in our heads that both Martin and Janet will not be pushed around and that they feel something for each other. 

Janet’s line about not wanting a “one night stand” and Martin’s retort about “we dated for a couple of months.” To which Janet says, in perfect zero emotion lawyer talk, “it was a one night stand. It just lasted 6 months.” 

That is the perfect line that tells you all you need to know about Martin — he’s emotionally unavailable and most likely loves himself more than others in the way only narcissists can. What a cocky snot.

The whole opening of this movie sets the stage for how self love and ego are going to play out. It’s masterful and what’s even better, within the first 7 minutes, you get introduced to the victim, the villian, and the hero. It’s really well done. It’s also stellar that the crime happens within the first ten minutes.

In terms of self love or narcissism, I think the best example of that is the first meeting between Martin and Aaron when Aaron is first arrested.

MARTIN: I don’t have to believe you. I don’t care. I’m your attorney which means I’m your mother, your father, your best friend, and your priest.

Man oh man. Think much of yourself Martin? Think you got it all figured out? I hope so because it’s about to get a lot more interesting with your pat yourself on the back attitude coupled with your ego. This is a great setup for what is to come.

To me, Ex Lovers + Self Love are intertwined in this story since both have to be present for the tension between Martin and Janet to hit those Powers of Ten that Valerie talked about in Waking Ned Devine.

What strikes me as the brilliance of this Ex-lover Scene is the rapid fire dialogue between Martin and Janet especially when they meet at the murder scene. They just get after it right away with retort after retort as well as Martin’s steadfast belief that Janet wanted this case because he is the defense lawyer. He is so full of himself.

Let’s get back to Self Love and the Shaughnessy character because he’s both a lawyer and a politician. Shaughnessy just oozes crook and his self love is mixed with a healthy ego that you get glimpses of early on but it’s this scene that takes it to the Power of Ten.

What a tool and what a great misdirection since the land deal that the archbishop stopped was losing money for Shaughnessy. It’s also super fun to see the back and forth on the cheesy dialogue that only narcissistic characters can sling back and forth to each other. It makes them more slimy and more evil. Oh, the best line is the “Pipes are bursting again John.” Ugh. Note to self, don’t write something like that with the smug pause and the lean in. It was so telegraphed.

I’m not that big a fan of this movie. Edward Norton did do a fantastic job acting but I don’t think that can save it.

What I do think is done well is the tension between Martin and Janet and while not a masters class in how to write ex lover tension into a story, it does give us some scene types that I think must be in ex lover sub-plots like:

  1. Lovers Fail to Reunite: This should be believable in that there is some hope but ultimately, you can’t create the tension without them failing to reunite. You can have them try multiple times but in the end, it must fail.
  2. One Lover Wants it More: That I feel creates the most tension in that one lover has a yearning while the other, either has someone else or knows it’s bad news.
  3. Tension Spills Out: This one is done well in the all the courtroom scenes where it’s obvious that Martin and Janet are trying to get back at each other.
  4. Happier Without You: All ex lovers will go out of their way to show and tell how much happier they are without each other. The best example of this is in Say Anything when Lili Taylor as Corey Flood sings about her ex boyfriend Joe.

The key to the ex lover sub-plot, if you will, is that they can’t get back together. That’s what creates the tension and I also think it has to be obvious that they won’t get back together. Sure, you can have a couple of attempts but they will never work out.

Ex lovers are made better when one or both are so full of self-love for themselves that it was either the reason or a big reason why they are no longer together. That is clearly here in Martin who loves himself more than anyone else and sets him up for his downfall. If Martin was not so in love with himself, we might actually feel sorry for him.

Leslie – Messages within the Story

I struggled with the lack of consistency in the internal genre and the message of this story like many of us did. For me it’s made worse by factual inaccuracies within the legal issues. Vail’s position at the end makes it seem as though there is nothing he can do. His hands are tied because of Double Jeopardy protections and attorney-client privilege. (Are we meant to question the wisdom of these fundamental protections?) We see Vail dejected and powerless at the end of the story because it appeals he’s unable to act on the information that would prevent a dangerous criminal from roaming the streets. What’s missing is that there are procedures to prevent this and a clear duty for attorneys not to assist people in committing or covering up crimes. An attorney in Vail’s position has, not just options, but specific duties.

I have a problem with cautionary tales that aren’t that useful … Vail cut corners and broke the rules, either believing he was serving justice or trying to win the case or both. It turned out he did win, but wasn’t serving justice; he was just a tool. When the truth was revealed, he didn’t do something to fix the problem. He believes he’s stuck in damnation. 

My real problem with this story is that it seems calculated to appeal to biases that are not very close to the surface (lawyers and politicians are greedy and self-serving, and priests take advantage of vulnerable people who seek help). It feels cliche, even for the mid-1990s and unfortunate because it seems calculated to make us feel less safe than circumstances warranted in a time when crime rates were dropping. 

It’s not enough to say this story doesn’t reflect reality, in part because as Anne often reminds us, stories aren’t real life, and characters aren’t real people. But why might the storyteller want this ending, rather than showing Vail sacrifice his pride to do the right thing? Is it ignorance about how these things work? Is it only to inform us that this is a risk in our criminal justice system? I don’t know, but it makes me even more aware of how important it is for us to get clear on the type of story we want to tell and the message about life and the world we want to send.

I’m also not sure where the filmmakers wanted this story to live on the spectrum of stories from serious ones with a message to those almost exclusively for entertainment, but consider whether we should reserve Psychological Thrillers for deeper, more meaningful messages about the world, rather than simple thrills with a twist. 

Listener Question

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

Literary fiction – we all know it’s a genre in itself, but can it have a ‘standard’ core scene? My story is character-led, including the setting, Pakistan, the family home, which is also a character. There is a climax (an abduction) and a resolution, but does this muddle genres?

Anne: Hi Izzy. What constitutes literary fiction is a vexed question, and I’ll invite you and any other interested listener to google the term and read a world of opinions on the subject. All of them are problematic to some extent, but we can at least turn to the Story Grid genre clover to get a little more clarity on your specific question.

In Story Grid terms, “literary” falls on the style leaf. Shawn has defined literary style in the past as “a sensibility of high art as pronounced by a particular intelligentsia,” and he includes in the category poetry, minimalism, meta, and postmodern works. He’s also said elsewhere that in the fiction publishing world, there’s the commercial side of the house and the literary side, and that the commercial side outsells the literary side and supports it, while the literary side confers distinction or status.

However–and this is very important–even with those distinctions in mind, he says that successful literary novels do adhere to the expectations of one content genre or another. 

We talk about this all the time here on the Roundtable. Kim’s focus on internal genre stories last season gave us a close look at three indie/art house films–the cinematic analog of literary novels–and all three had clear, identifiable character arcs and straightforward plots. 

Fundamentals of Caring

A Man Called Ove


Granted, they were quiet stories. Personal, internal-genre stories where the stakes aren’t life-and-death but success and failure, or ignorance and wisdom, or selfishness and altruism.

So it’s not quite accurate, in Story Grid terms, to say that literary is a genre in itself. “Literary” isn’t a content genre, but, barring absurdist and postmodern offerings, a good literary novel will HAVE a content genre. It might not be super-obvious, but it will reveal a clear genre if you study it.

Personally, I enjoy reading fiction that’s a little more on the literary side. They do tend to favor the internal genres, but are by no means defined by them. In the past year or two, on top of stories with primary worldview, status and morality plots, I’ve read literary novels that a crime story, a love story, a war story, and a society story, all of which were classed as literary novels.

As to your own story’s genre, you would have to answer some basic questions. How does your protagonist change from beginning to end of the story? What do they want? What do they have to gain and lose? Who is the antagonist or what is the antagonistic force, and what is its goal? How does it operate to block the forward movement of the protagonist toward their goal?

Answering these questions will help you zero in on your content genre. Genres where the setting plays almost as a character include War, Society, and Western. Stories where a family home is a central figure might fall into the Society domestic genre. Neither of those characteristics muddies your genre. What muddies your genre is NOT selecting and adhering to the expectations of a content genre (or two–an internal and an external). In that case, no matter how lovely your prose or evocative your settings, your story is likely to leave your reader confused and disappointed.

But if you DO select and then meet the expectations of both an internal and an external genre, no matter how literary or plain your style, you will write a story that works and won’t be muddy at all.

 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 as Jarie explores the love story with a look at Ang Lee’s 1995 film Sense and Sensibility. 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.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
by Shawn Coyne
What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on and on. However, all of this eventually comes back to five first principles. In Story Grid 101, Story Grid founder Shawn Coyne distills 30 years... Read more »
Paperback: $19.99
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Audiobook: $14.99
Author Leslie Watts

One Comment

Larry Pass says:

Just some observations on the actors:
Richard Gere played an unscrupulous Chicago lawyer again in Chicago. He also played a reasonably scrupulous Chicago lawyer in Shall We Dance?

Laura Linney played a prosecutor again the following year in Absolute Power.

Edward Norton seems to have a thing for portraying multiple personalities, or at least multiple personas:
Two years after playing Aaron/Roy, he received his second Oscar nomination for American History X where his character, Derek, undergoes a radical personality shift;
The next year, he played the narrator in Fight Club — say no more;
In Score, he portrayed Jackie, a thief who himself was playing the role of Brian, a handicapped employee of the place he’s planning to rob;
Next is Death to Smoochy where he plays Sheldon Mopes. Sheldon plays Smoochy on a kids’ TV show;
In The Incredible Hulk, he plays Bruce Banner/The Hulk, and in Leaves of Grass, he portrays identical twin brothers. Throw in shapeshifter roles, as in The Illusionist and The Italian Job.


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Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.


Is this your first crack at writing and finishing your book? Are you lost on how to tackle this project? This is the place to start.