This week, Kim looks at Silver Linings Playbook, in order to continue her study of crafting an intentional beginning. This 2018 film was written and directed by David O. Russell, based on the 2008 novel of the nearly same name by Matthew Quick.
Content Warning: The film and novel are about mental illness and there is a flashback scene of severe personal violence as well as strong language throughout.
Silver Linings Playbook has had a big influence on me because of its peculiar kind of love story and the way it addresses mental health—all things that are my jam. I had seen the film many times but recently read the novel, which was surprisingly very different. There are things about each that I liked better and things about each that don’t quite work as well as they could, but overall, for me, the big meta why of this story is powerful.
As the blogger on tastelikecrazy.com put it:
Two very broken people who broke their families and who manage to be less broken together.
And to that I say, “Yes, please.”
If you also enjoy stories like this, I’d like to invite you to check out my novel According to Plan. You can find a link to it at my website: www.kimberkessler.com
For the purposes of today’s episode, I will mostly focus on the film version, but I’ll point out a few things from the book version as well. Also, here is a link to the Taste Like Crazy blog post that does a great job lining out the differences between the book and the film and how each changes the story, for better and for worse.
Here is the BH/MB/EP for the film:
- Beginning Hook – After a court-ordered 8-month stay in a mental hospital, Pat comes home on the condition that he regularly sees a therapist and takes his medication. But he refuses to take his medication, determined instead to beat back negativity with exercise and a positive mindset—all in an effort to remake himself so he can reunite with his wife, Nikki. But when his attraction to the troubled widow Tiffany triggers him to manically search for his wedding video, he gets caught in a flashback and accidentally injures his mom. The next day, he begins taking his medication.
- Middle Build – At the encouragement of his therapist, Pat befriends Tiffany, hoping it will be a sign of good-faith to Nikki that he’s a changed person. Tiffany offers to deliver a letter from Pat to Nikki if he agrees to be her partner in an upcoming dance competition. They begin rehearsing regularly and Tiffany delivers a letter back to him from Nikki.
- But when Pat’s superstitious father enters into a double-or-nothing bet that requires the Eagles to beat the Cowboys and for Pat and Tiffany to score at least a 5.0 in their dance, Pat refuses to participate. Tiffany is upset says a line that clues Pat into the fact that Nikki never wrote him the letter—Tiffany did. He returns to rehearsal with her, looking at her very differently.
- Ending Payoff – The ending payoff is entirely the final performance for the dance competition. It feels like one long scene so it’s kind of tricky to figure out the five commandments – Anne’s going to talk about this more, but basically it’s day of the competition, Tiffany is stressed and Pat is watching her closely with a very different look in his eye. They arrive at the competition and Nikki does in fact show up. This throws Tiffany completely out of sorts. Pat and Tiffany dance, they get a 5.0, winning the bet. Pat has a quiet moment of closure with Nikki and goes after Tiffany for his final declaration of love.
Love, Performance, and Society-Domestic supporting plots
While the two versions of the story are very different, I would still ultimately classify both as global Worldview-Maturation. Pat goes from a singular belief and singular want at the beginning of the story (that choosing to be positive and reject negativity is enough to fix everything, and that he and Nikki are meant to reunite). By the end of the story, he’s released his obsession with Nikki and sees that it is the efforts of those around him that have helped him get well.
The generic cause and effect statement for Worldview-Maturation is:
When a sympathetic protagonist, with naive black-and-white views of the world and mistakenly conceived goals, experiences a loss or trial that shows them the world is multi-layered and imperfect, they embrace better-suited goals and actions.
This feels true for both versions.
When it comes to the external genres, the film elevates the Performance story making the dance competition the focus of the Ending Payoff, whereas in the book it’s more lowkey and part of the middle build.
Another big difference is that the book has a Worldview-Revelation plot that supports the Worldview-Maturation. In the book, Pat doesn’t remember the incident that sent him to the hospital and his family is actively working to hide things to protect him. Also in the book he’s been in the hospital for four years (most of which he doesn’t even remember), whereas in the film it’s only been eight months.
As Amy from Taste Like Crazy put it, “I wish I could go to some parallel place where I could have read the book and have seen the movie and simultaneously have no knowledge the other existed.”
The Principle – Kim – Crafting An Intentional Beginning
I’ve been on a quest to understand what makes a great beginning to a story, the specific elements we need in order to not only hook our readers, but lay the foundation for the story we are seeking to share. This means establishing the crystal clear life values that signal the human need we’re working with and triggers subconscious expectations in the reader. Because whether we are aware of it or not, the structure of story, the genres of story, are in us—coded into our subconscious as patterns we recognize as meaningful.
What is becoming clear is that the way to do this is through conventions—these are the story’s specific characters, setting, and means of turning the plot (aka the premise, conflicts, and constraints).
Along with our content genre life values, we must introduce our readers to the other leaves on genre’s clover—specifically reality and style. This ensures our reader is properly oriented so as to generate expectations, and then can settle until those expectations are paid off—in a surprising yet inevitable way, of course.
So, we know what to communicate (our stories primary conventions) and we know when (in the beginning: hook, scene, beat, sentence)
So the real question is HOW — how do we communicate all this to our readers?
What words do we use? What specific order do I introduce things? How much do I say or save or omit? Now I’m sure all the pantsers listening are like, “What the heck are you talking about? Just WRITE IT! You’ll figure it out as you go! Writing is rewriting!”
My hope is that by studying intentionally, I can integrate the HOW of this into my implicit learning, but until then I want to explicitly understand what I am doing and why for every part of my story.
Personally, I’ve often been worried about being too “on the nose” in my writing. Navigating the bizarre tension between showing and telling. The biggest lesson I’m learning is that every choice and detail in your story should be specific. On purpose. It is the specificity of your details that make the story real and signal your reader’s subconscious.
Don’t be vague. Be specific.
Let’s look at the specifics that the film uses to introduce the conventions.
Story Event: Mom picks up Pat from the hospital
- Onstage Characters – Pat, hospital staff, other patients, Pat’s Mom, Danny
- Offstage Characters – Nikki (who Pat is reading his letter to in the opening)
- Setting – Karel Hospital, Baltimore (superimposed on screen), driving in the car
- Means of Turning Plot – Pat’s internal elements (Friedman’s Framework)
- Character – strong-willed (tells hospital staff to wait, spits out his medication, sneaks Danny offsite, tries to take the wheel from his mom)
- Thought – existing worldview … beliefs about Nikki (that they’ll get back together), belief about negativity being poison and that anything that isn’t 100% positive is negative. This directly impacts his wants and actions: exercising, going to read her syllabus, be positive …
- Fortune – in a mental hospital, exercising, attending therapy, mom picks him up (he has other people in his life who care)
Story Event: Dad pushes back on Pat’s plan to get back with Nikki, Pat doubles down on his WV
Story Event: Pat reads A Farewell to Arms and hates it, rages at his parents in the middle of the night
Story Event: First therapy session … Dr. Patel tests Pat by playing his wedding song, which is a sever trigger for Pat. This is the first time we really see Pat struggle with his illness. In their session, Pat comes right out and says, “I’m not going to take any meds, I should just tell you that right now.” Dr. Patel says, “No you have to take meds.” The talk about the incident where Pat found his wife in the shower with the history teacher.
Dr Patel: Can you talk about something that you did before or after?
Pat: Yeah about a week before, I called the cops and I told them that my wife and history guy were plotting against me by embezzling money from the local high school, which, wasn’t true, it was a delusion. And we learned from the hospital that it’s because I’m, uh…
Dr Patel: Undiagnosed bipolar.
Pat: Yeah, with mood swings and weird thinking brought on by stress which rarely happens, thank God. And then the shower incident happened and that’s when everything snapped, so … I then realize that oh, wow, you know, I’ve been dealing with this my whole life. And without any supervision, I’ve been doing it all on my own. With no help. And I’ve basically been white-knuckling it this whole time.
Dr. Patel: That had to be hard.
Pat: Yeah, it’s a lot to deal with, especially when you don’t know what the hell is happening, which I do now. Sort of.
(Clip at 14:00-15:05)
Story Event: Argues with mom about meds, Dad is superstitious and wants him to watch Philadelphia Eagles game, random kid shows up about an interview which is a stressor for his dad, Pat leaves to go running, ends with parents calling out “Don’t look for Nikki”
Story Event: While running, Pat sees his old boss at the school (this is likely the person who calls the cops re: restraining order), Pat sees his friend Ronnie, gets an invite to dinner, and potential connection to Nikki. He comes back home and tries to call Nikki, his parents stop him, cop shows up to discuss the restraining order against him.
Story Event: Dr. Patel continues to encourage Pat to take his meds and get a strategy
Story Event: Dinner with Ronnie and Veronica, meets Veronica’s sister Tiffany. Pat is his usual unfiltered self, but then Pat and Tiffany have a unique moment of connection talking about meds.
Tiffany: What meds are you on?
Pat: Me? None. I used to be on Lithium and Seroquel and Abilify, but I don’t take them anymore. No. They make me foggy and they also make me bloated.
Tiffany: Yeah, I was on Xanax and Effexor, but I agree, I wasn’t as sharp, so I stopped.
Pat: You ever take Klonopin?
Tiffany: Klonopin? Yeah.
Pat: Like I said, “What? What day is it?”
Tiffany: Yeah (laughing)
Pat: How about Trazadone?
Pat: It flattens you out, I mean, you are done. It takes the light right out of your eyes.
Tiffany: God I bet it does.
(Clip at 27:43-28:16)
Story Event: Pat walks Tiffany home where she offers him sex. He says no (he’s married) and insults her by pointing out she can’t be married because Tommy is dead. She is upset and cries on him. This is very big moment of connection in book where Pat cries too.
Story Event: Pat returns home and begins frantically searching for his wedding video, gets caught in memory of the past/wedding song/incident, and accidentally elbows his mom and knocks her down, Pat and Dad both lose it, cop shows up again
Story Event: Next day, starts taking his meds.
The book’s first chapter is literally called “An Infinite Number of Days Until My Inevitable Reunion with Nikki”, a clear representation of his currently defined worldview. He begins by believing he is already better, and only going to continue to get better, and therefore doesn’t need to take medication. By the end of the BH, he has accepted that he is not as well as he thought and begins to take his medication.
This BH is a great example of a crisis, as the call to adventure (or call to wellness in this case) and Pat’s refusal of that call occurs early on. Over the course of the BH, the progressive complications continue to poke holes in his existing belief system, ultimately leading him to cede to his doctor and mother’s wishes.
Anne – The 15 (or 20) Core Scenes and how they don’t line up
I’m going to assert that the film doesn’t work, on a couple of important axes. First of all, is it a drama or a comedy? In my view, there’s very little comedy until the core event, which I’ll get to in a minute. The only other comedic moments are carried by Danny, played by Chris Tucker, and they’re kind of random, demonstrations of his particular mental disorder, possibly there to show contrast with Pat, who is arguably a little more stable than Danny. I’m not sure.
Second and more importantly, what the hell is the content genre? I agree with Kim that it’s mostly about accepting and learning to deal with mental illness—about second chances and accepting the help of others, including a therapist and medications in order to build a new life. I agree that Pat’s journey from naivete to a greater degree of sophistication is the meaning.
Unfortunately, the core scenes of each of the acts do not uniformly support this nice idea.
Now, I have it on insider authority that what we here in Story Grid land have been calling the 15 core scenes will soon be officially rebranded as the 20 core scenes—or moments. Shawn seems to have had a kind of midpoint shift of his own and accepted that the middle build can almost always be broken into two halves or acts. It’s certainly obvious in this film, so I’m going to take a quick look at the 20 core scenes.
Kim: Hallelujah!!! This makes me so very happy to hear.
Anne: Here we go. Kim has already covered a lot of this, I’ll keep it brief.
Inciting Incident: Pat is released from the mental hospital on condition of seeing his therapist and taking his medications.
Progressive Complications: he refuses his meds and goes on his own plan; he freaks out at his therapist’s office; he meets Tiffany.
Turning Point: Tiffany’s sexual overture causes him to have a break, during which he accidentally injures his mother.
Crisis: Keep believing in his own self-help plan or get on his meds.
Climax: He sees that his meds are necessary.
Resolution: He takes his meds.
Middle Build 1:
Inciting Incident: Tiffany offers to deliver a letter from Pat to Nikki in contravention of Nikki’s restraining order.
Turning Point: Tiffany changes her offer and makes it dependent on Pat’s joining a dance competition with her.
Crisis: Pat must agree to her terms and get his letter to Nikki, or get out of danching but forgo the chance to communicate with her.
Climax: Pat agrees to the dancing.
Resolution: Pat and Tiffany begin rehearsing together.
So far so good. The plot is turning on Pat’s delusions, and on his gullibility based on those delusions. He has taken a step towards healthy relationship by agreeing to Tiffany’s terms, accepting responsibility for doing something important in exchange for the significant favor he’s now expecting her to do.
Middle Build 2. Here’s where it all starts getting weird.
Inciting Incident: Pat’s father has bet everything he’s got on the Giants game and needs Pat to attend the game to be his lucky charm. This happens to the dad, and has very little to do with Pat, except that Pat feels he has to break a rehearsal date with Tiffany in order to attend the game.
Progressive Complications: Pat goes to the game instead of rehearsing with Tiffany. He gets into a fight at the game, defending Dr Patel. The Eagles lose and Dad blames it on Pat. Tiffany then storms into the house and takes control of the story baton from here on out.
Note that though complications get louder, the turning point isn’t really an escalation of anything to do with Pat and his choices. Tiffany spouts sports stats to persuade Dad that she’s not bad luck, and Dad changes his mind about her.
Turning Point: With Dad on her side, Tiffany proposes the double or nothing bet and ties the dance competition into it. This is not only unrelated to the underlying meaning of the story, it suddenly makes everything that follows turn on the core values of a Performance story, which didn’t even get introduced until the midpoint shift.
Crisis: (belongs to the dad) Take the bet and risk everything, or don’t, and never get back the money he’s already lost.
Climax: Dad takes the bet, but the pressure is too great and Pat refuses to participate in the dance competition after all.
Resolution: In a scene where Pat the protagonist is absent, Tiffany conspires with Mom and Dad to insure Pat’s attendance by lying and saying Nikki will be there.
There’s an all-important beat where Pat figures out that Tiffany wrote the supposed letter from Nikki. It seems to be part of the third act, but it also launches the fourth, so let’s call it the inciting incident of the final act.
Ending Payoff: It was really hard to find a clear five core scenes or moments here:
Inciting Incident: I think this is when Pat rereads the letter supposed letter from Nikki, spots a phrase of Tiffany’s in it, decides to keep it to himself, and seems to decide to participate in the dance competition anyway. This is a big turning point for Pat’s story, a step towards wisdom and maturity, but it’s the barely-visible causal inciting incident of the ending payoff.
Progressive Complications: Pat pretends he believes that Nikki’s going to be at the competition. The Eagles win against the Giants, securing the first part of Dad’s outrageous wager. Nikki actually does appear at the competition, causing Tiffany to backslide with a stranger at the bar in the competition hotel, getting drunk and deciding not to dance.
What’s the turning point? Is it Nikki’s appearance? That changes something for both Pat and Tiffany, though nothing very important, since Pat has already freed himself from his illusion about getting back together with her.
Or is it the inaudible conversation Pat has with Nikki after the competition?
Crisis: There are two: will Tiffany compete after all? And, after the dance scene, will she believe that Pat is finally over Nikki?
The problems here: 1) these crises both belong to Tiffany, who is not the protagonist; and 2) they take place on either side of what appears to the be core event of the story, the actual dance performance, which isn’t the right core event for the story’s global genre of Worldview.
Climax: A) Tiffany does dance, and B) she does accept that Pat has given up his delusion of getting back with Nikki. Neither is a choice made by Pat.
Resolution: They win the competition—which, by the way, is a totally comedic scene of bad dancing, judges face-palming, and the audience looking really uncomfortable.
Kim: My sister, who loves this film, still can’t fully watch the dance scene at the end—it’s cringy and sweet and sexy awkward, but the more I watch it the more I like just for that reason, haha!
Anne: Yeah, cringe humor isn’t my thing either, and I had to kind of squint sideways at it. But it WAS very funny.
And finally, Pat’s father’s money is restored, Tiffany and Pat officially become a couple, it’s Christmas, everyone is happy. The end.
According to the X-Ray notes on Amazon, Jackie Weaver, who plays the mother, reported that during the big ballroom scene, where her job was just to sit there with 300 other people watching the big dance performance, the judges were holding up their scorecards in take after take, and she kept doing the math and coming up with an average score that did not actually equal the 5.0 that the story required. She told a producer, who said OMG you’re right, and they fixed it.
This possibly apocryphal anecdote said a lot to me about the producers’ and director’s attention to detail on this film. Attention to detail is important, and so much in this story has been carelessly put together, seemingly in the hope that star power and great acting would cover little flaws like the scorecards not adding up, and big flaws like the fact that major turning points in the story don’t even belong to the protagonist.
Were they right to hope that would work? I don’t think so. The film almost works, and works for a lot of people because the dance competition is funny and gratifying in a kind of cliched, expected way, and the love story ends happily. Pat does seem to be coming to terms with the reality of his mental illness, and it’s lovely to see these two flawed people find love with each other.
But I’d argue that the film depends far too heavily on some fine acting and star power to throw sparkle dust in the audience’s eyes and deflect attention from its fundamental structural flaws. I hear the novel is much, much better.
Kim: I’m still working out how I feel about novel vs the film. Our offline discussion this morning before recording has really helped me in this and I can’t recommend enough having a group of story nerds to talk through your cognitive dissonance with.
Leslie – POV and Narrative Device
Like Anne and like Kim, I’m focusing on specifics today, but from a different angle—one of the ways you make choosing specifics easier is by creating constraints that narrow the options. And one of the most useful constraints you can leverage is your narrative device and POV.
If you’ve listened to our recent episodes, you know this is my
obsession focus for the season. POV and narrative device answer the question, how do I deliver my story to the reader?
POV is what we’re familiar with from grade school. It tells you whether your story is first person, third person limited, omniscient, for example, and whether it’s written in past or present tense. The narrative device or situation tells you who is conveying the story, to whom, when and where, in what form, and why.
Getting clarity on the narrative device choice has been transformative for many of my clients because it provides useful constraints that limit the infinite choices you have to make in the story. When you understand why someone is sharing a story to whom and under what circumstances, the question of which details you should and shouldn’t include become clearer. I go into this in depth in my Bite Size episode on choosing your POV. The bite size episode can be found here, and you can find my article on narrative device here, and the article on POV here.
What’s the narrative problem presented by the premise?
I start my inquiry by thinking about the problem(s) that arises from the story’s premise. The premise is a person in a particular setting with a problem. What’s the premise here? A person with mental illness is transitioning home from inpatient treatment and needs to make sense of a confounding world and find love and belonging. For the novel and the film, one narrative problem is how to help the reader understand the subjective experience of someone with severe mental illness.
For the fim, we have the additional problem of presenting a global internal genre in a medium that doesn’t grant natural access to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings. It can be handled with lots of voiceover, as is done in the Bridget Jones’s Diary adaptation. That doesn’t always work and can feel forced, but it’s one way. A worse option, I think, is to simply ignore it, which is what seems to happen in this film.
For my analysis, I’m focusing on the novel, but I’ll make reference to the film as well.
What’s the POV?
Novel: First person, present tense. The film feels like Selective Omniscience from Pat’s perspective until the midpoint when it begins to feel like Neutral Omniscience.
What’s the narrative device?
I don’t see a clear narrative device for the film. There could be one there, but I couldn’t uncover it.
In the novel, Pat is the protagonist (who), so he’s inside the story—not on the periphery or outside (where). Pat is writing what he calls daily memoirs (form) for himself (to/for whom), but the story also includes letters to and ostensibly from Nikki. Pat wants to keep track of what’s happening because his memory is slipping, and his memoir helps him to make sense of the world (why). The story is recorded in close proximity in time and space to the events he describes (when), so he doesn’t have a lot of time to metabolize or gain perspective until later in the story.
How well does it work?
From my perspective, the film doesn’t work because there is no unifying narrative device. The novel’s narrative device is clear and works quite effectively.
Here’s an example of a problem from the film. There’s a scene near the end when Pat realizes Tiffany wrote the letter that he believes comes from Nikki. We only find out later, so Pat knows more than we do. The narrative drive in the scene is mystery. We don’t know what Pat is thinking about this revelation at all until the very end. It feels like a cheat because most of the film relies on a variety of dramatic irony where we can see the ways Pat is misreading situations to his detriment, and he can’t. As Valerie tells us, dramatic irony relies heavily on empathy for the character.
I didn’t feel a lot of empathy for Pat in the film simply because we see only the outward manifestation of the sense he’s making of the world and other people’s behavior. We don’t see the thought process. So the film relies on the objective facts (and to be fair, solid acting) to create empathy: This is a man who experiences mental illness that interferes with his ability to make sense of the world, but we don’t get a sense of the subjective meaning to Pat, which we get through the narrative in the novel. To be clear, there are some lovely moments in the film, and I remember them as I review the novel, but the novel allows us to linger and understand the specific ways that Pat is struggling, which gives rise to empathy.
We see his internal experience alongside his external experience. The gap between the internal and external experience allows for dark humor to arise in an organic way that in the film feels forced. I had no trouble attaching to Pat in the novel, and I wanted to keep reading because I cared about whether Pat would be able to make sense of his world and find someone who really loves him.
Valerie – Narrative Drive and Empathy
Leslie asked if I’d take a look at narrative drive and empathy this week, so I’ll take a little break from Forces of Antagonism—but not to worry, I’ll be coming back to it.
When I first introduced this topic last season, I said that there’s a difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy means “likability”; in other words, whether a reader likes the protagonist. Empathy means “relatability”; or, whether a reader can connect with the protagonist on an emotional level. It doesn’t matter if readers like a main character, but they must be able to connect emotionally with the protagonist.
So with respect to Silver Linings Playbook, the question is, do we connect with Pat? And, I think the answer is yes.
Pat is an underdog. The odds are against him and the chances of him achieving his object of desire (to reunite with Niki), are slim.
There’s a book I’ve been studying called “Writing for Emotional Impact” by Karl Iglesias, and I highly recommend it. Iglesias outlines a number of ways empathy can be generated. One of them is to have the main character feeling something that the reader has also felt. This is part of where this idea of specificity begets universality comes in. This does happen in Silver Linings Playbook. Pat is heartbroken and terrified. Yes, he talks about being positive and about looking for the positive—the silver lining—in a situation, but all that stems from his desperation to reunite with Niki.
Notice how Pat’s emotion is directly connected to his conscious object of desire; it’s his “why”. Why does Pat want Niki back? Because he’s heartbroken and terrified of losing her. These emotions are behind all his actions; the weight loss, the therapy, the positive thinking and so on. We’ve all been there (whether we want to admit it to ourselves or not). At some point, we’ve tried to become a different person in order to attract someone we’re in love with.
Just as empathy isn’t sympathy, it’s also not pity. I think there’s a fine line between creating empathy and pity. I’m not sure exactly where the line is, but in this film, I think it’s a question of getting too much information too soon. There’s a scene in the beginning hook—it’s only 13 minutes in—the one in Dr. Patel’s office, where there’s a big information dump. Pat blurts out all the things he’s been dealing with and everything that has led up to this point. It’s his entire back story. We get so much information, so fast, that we don’t have time to process it, there isn’t enough time for empathy to be generated. Instead, what we feel is pity.
In about a minute and a half, we find out:
- That Pat’s wedding song is a trigger
- That Pat walked in on his wife having sex with the history teacher
- That the history teacher had tenure (which is salt in the wound because Pat didn’t have a permanent job)
- That his father is violent
- That Pat accused them of plotting against him and embezzling money from the local high school
- That he’s lived with undiagnosed bi-polar disease, with mood swings and weird thinking brought on by severe stress
If these points had been dramatized and revealed one at a time over the course of the film, they would have generated enormous empathy. However, this is so much information, so much trauma, to handle in one blow, that it makes the viewer shut down emotionally. We simply can’t process that much suffering in a minute and a half. We just can’t. So rather than soaking it up, we let it bounce right off us. We have to.
Pat ends his monologue by saying, “I’ve been dealing with this my whole life, without any supervision. I’ve been dealing with it all on my own, with no help. And I’ve basically been white-knuckling it this whole time.”
By telling us this, rather than showing us, the writers have robbed us of an opportunity to connect emotionally with Pat. We were already distanced because of the avalanche of information. Telling us Pat’s history, rather than showing it, creates another degree of separation.
What we’ve got then, is a bunch of issues that intellectually we all recognize as significant and difficult to deal with. Intellectually, we know that he’s traumatized and we can agree that the odds are against him—not just in his pursuit of Niki, but in life generally. But an intellectual connection is the opposite of an emotional one. It’s not empathy.
In the end, we’re left with one major point of connection. We empathize with Pat around his global external object of desire. We know what it feels like to want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with us.
This leads me to narrative drive. At a global level, the main question the viewer is asking is “will Pat and Niki reunite?” In other words, will Pat get what he wants?
Narrative drive is all about getting and keeping the reader’s interest, and interest is generated when there are unanswered questions on the table. It’s our job as writers to create a story that constantly has the reader wondering whether and how the protagonist will get his object of desire, and what will happen next.
People are curious by nature. If you don’t believe me, observe your own behaviour. Observe the behaviour of the people around you.
The way you pique curiosity and inspire questions in readers’ minds, is to control how much information they have with respect to the protagonist’s pursuit of his object of desire.
Just as empathy is not pity, curiosity is not confusion.
The filmmakers have intentionally created a sense of chaos by having characters talking and yelling over one another, and by having them repeat the same line of dialogue over and over, or by having a line of dialogue echoed by multiple characters in succession. That’s an artistic choice and I can see why they would have done that.
But apart from that, there’s confusion about the plot. On paper, the concept of Silver Linings Playbook is terrific. It’s a courtship love story between Pat and Tiffany, where the third person in the love triangle is an estranged ex-wife. In terms of narrative drive, I found the execution frustrating.
The beginning hook sets us up to believe that this is a story about Pat actively trying to get his wife back. We’re expecting to meet Niki before the end of Act 1. But the person we meet is Tiffany and by the end of the first act, we’re wondering whether Pat will have a relationship with Tiffany. But we’re still wondering about Niki. We’re still expecting to meet her, either for them to reconcile, or for her to finally end it between them. In the first 20 minutes of the film, all we hear about is their relationship, so we’re expecting to see it with our own eyes. At the end of the beginning hook, when Tiffany hugs Pat, he says, “Wait, what? What’s happening?”, and I gotta be honest, I was asking that too. That’s not the kind of question you want your reader to be wondering.
There are a number of times in this film where the dialogue is so on-the-nose that I wondered why they bothered. It reminded me of The Shawshank Redemption where the voiceover told us things we already knew.
For example, during Pat’s rant about A Farewell to Arms he asks why a story can’t have a happy ending, and immediately we know that Silver Linings Playbook is going to have a happily ever after ending.
Then, toward the end of the middle build, Pat says to his father, “I’m sorry you can’t come to the stadium, you gettin’ kicked out for beating everybody up. I guess we’re not that different, huh dad?” Well, we already know he’s like his father. We’ve been watching it for an hour. But now—because of that line—we also know that Pat about to get kicked out of the stadium for beating people up, which means we know the Eagles are going to lose, which means we know his father is about to lose everything, but not only that, we know he’s going to lose any hope of reconnecting with Niki because the very reason she has a restraining order against him is because he beat someone up. So, we pretty much know the last 40 minutes of the story. We’re not asking ourselves any questions because we’ve already guessed what’s going to happen.
I want to finish here by talking about the happily ever after ending. It doesn’t make sense. First we’ve spent one hour and fifty minutes hearing about how Pat wants to reunite with Niki. We’ve been waiting to meet Niki and lo and behold, she shows up at the dance competition. There’s a massive plot hole about why she’s there, but we’ll forgive that because at least we finally get to see them together. But then they switch to Tiffany’s point of view and we’re robbed of the very scene we’ve been waiting to see. Yes, we hear some chitchat between them, but we don’t care about that. We want to know what he whispers in her ear and how she reacts. We don’t get it. This is the point when the Hollywood ending kicks in. Suddenly we’re no longer watching Pat and Tiffany. We’re watching Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
How does Pat know that Tiffany wrote the letter? There’s a moment in the parlay scene where Tiffany yells “if it was me reading the signs”. This is a line from the letter that Niki apparently wrote, and suddenly Pat realizes that Tiffany was the one who wrote the letter. This would make sense if he hadn’t read the letter out loud to Tiffany earlier in the film. And not only did Tiffany hear it, but they had a whole conversation about it. That’s how she got him to keep dancing with her.
I know there are lots of people who love this film. But for me, at least in terms of empathy and narrative drive, it doesn’t work so well.
Final Thoughts and Takeaways for Writers
We like to round out our discussion with a few key takeaways for writers who want to level up their own writing craft. What have we learned this week?
Anne: My key takeaway as both a writer and an editor is to be sure that your 15 or 20 core scenes or moments proceed organically from the meaning you want your story to have—that is, your genuinely global genre. Other scenes and moments can belong to secondary characters, but your protagonist must own the core scenes, make the core climactic decisions, and change along the value range of your consciously-chosen genre. This is Story Grid 101 stuff, but I’ll be the first to admit that it is very hard work and takes a lot of practice.
Start by looking back at almost all our show notes beginning in Season 2, for the Beginning Hook/Middle Build/Ending Payoff summaries, which are all built on the 15 core scene concept. Every storyteller needs to master the task of summarizing briefly anyway—you need it to pitch your story to agents, editors and publisher, or to blurb your book if you’re self-publishing, and even to just discuss it in interviews, podcasts, readings, and so on.
So get on that, writers.
Leslie: We often say that specificity is the key to universality. But which specifics? The options for specific details are infinite. My advice is to focus on the specific details that the reveal the subjective meaning the protagonist assigns to the story events—and choose a POV and narrative device that allow you to emphasize that specific meaning.
Valerie: For me, Silver Linings Playbook is an excellent reminder that we’ve got to nail the fundamentals of storytelling, because out of them grow more advanced techniques like empathy and narrative drive. Unless the fundamentals are in place, the other things we’re trying to do with our story won’t work very well. Kim: The biggest lesson I’ve learned studying this story is not actually beginnings … it’s about studying something you love.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Kim Barton through the Story Grid Guild. Kim writes:
I have questions about how to balance two protagonists – like in a love story where you have the point of view of both lovers – if both characters are either equal in importance, or nearly so. Is it crucial for both to hit all the important points in the story like the all is lost moment? What is the best way to handle it if the characters have different inciting incidents, crises, or all is lost moments? How do you handle it if their inciting incidents, crises, etc., happen at different points in the story? Do you have to meet all five commandments for both main characters in the global story? Or is it best to pick one character to be the dominant one and make sure that character’s story hits all the commandments? At the scene level, when tracking value shifts, do you only do it for the point of view character in a particular scene?
Anne: This a great question and one that I had to deal with myself in writing my love story, Restraint. I wanted my two lovers to be equal in importance—co-protagonists. Like you, my story’s POV alternated between the two lovers. It was a big hurdle to accept that yes, one of them had to be the protagonist, the one whose life value shifts the most. For my story it was the one with the most at stake in committing to the relationship. It’ll probably be the one the reader meets and attaches to first, regardless of how awesome the other lover might be.
Shawn and I talked a bit about this on the Masterwork Experiment, in the context of “Brokeback Mountain,” and I’m pretty sure I originally found this bit of advice in Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. In a love story, you must choose one of the lovers as your protagonist, and treat the other as a form of antagonist. One lover has an antagonistic effect on the other, either through declaring love or interest too soon, or being too reticent. Usually one is the pursuer and one is the pursued.
This is not to say that one lover is the antagonist of the story. More often, the principal antagonistic force in a love story is a “harmer” (someone who does not want the love to thrive and actively tries to keep the lovers apart), or a societal force like economic differences, incompatible careers or goals, etc.
But think about the arc of a love story. If two lovers meet, fall in love, agree that they want to be together for the long term, and proceed to marriage or partnership, that’s nice, but it’s not much of a story. One of them has to convince the other, court the other, trouble the other’s peace of mind at least a little—and that’s what I mean by being a bit of an antagonist.
Of course, each of your lovers should have their own internal genre, depending on how each one has to change to come to the point of making that all-important commitment. It’s usually worldview, sometimes status.
But remember: the love story itself progresses along its own value range from indifference to attraction to desire to commitment to intimacy—and you have to measure those value shifts against a single protagonist.
It’s the protagonist who reaches the all is lost moment. That moment had better have something to do with the other lover, of course, but it’s not necessarily an all is lost moment for them both equally. Elizabeth Bennet’s all is lost moment is when she believes her sister’s bad actions have made it forever impossible for Darcy to love her. She has no idea what Darcy’s up to at that moment and neither does the reader. We suffer with her alone.
To answer the last part of your question, it’s the same in a love story as in any other kind: you typically track the value shift in a given scene for the POV character in the scene. That shift should be associated with the POV character’s internal genre, as well as being tied to your global genre.
It’s really simpler than it feels, as soon as you simply say, yeah, Lover A is my protagonist, and Lover B is a little like Lover A’s antagonist.
I hope this helps. Good luck with your love story, and thanks for a great question.
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 when Kim will look at Beginnings again in the 2015 film Brooklyn. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?