Editor Roundtable: The Spy Who Dumped Me

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This week, Leslie pitched The Spy Who Dumped Me to continue her study of the conventions of the Action genre. This 2018 film in the Epic subgenre was directed by Susanna Fogel from a screenplay she wrote with David Iserson.

The Story

Action-Epic-Conspiracy

  • Beginning Hook – Drew calls Audrey to ask her not to burn his things, but when he returns the next day to explain, he’s shot by a foreign agent, and she must decide whether trust him and deliver a flash drive to Vienna to prevent a terrorist attack or stay home. She decides to go with her best friend Morgan.
  • Middle Build – When Audrey and Morgan attempt to deliver the flash drive, they are attacked and must keep it safe, but later when they learn that Sebastian is the only one they can trust, Audrey must decide whether to reveal that she still has the flash drive. She decides to trust him and they learn that it contains a backdoor to the Internet.
  • Ending Payoff – At the gala event where Duffer was supposed to deliver , Sebastian’s cover is blown and he disappears, but when Drew appears and tells Audrey that Sebastian is lying, she must decide whom to believe. She chooses Sebastian then holds Drew until the police arrive.

The Principle

Last time I talked about why it’s important to study content genre conventions: They are the necessary conditions or ingredients to create the global life value shift for your genre. Other elements of your story contribute conventions as well, and I’ll share those specifics for The Spy Who Dumped Me as well.

Subgenre: Action-Epic

Action subgenres are determined by the force of antagonism. In the epic subgenre, the force of antagonism is a visible or invisible tyrant, a large criminal organization, or a single villain intent on social destruction. The villain’s MacGuffin, or the thing they want, is usually something that gives them power and deprives someone else of power (which is why I think these stories sometimes feel like society stories). The victim or potential victim includes some portion or level of society, represented by one or more specific characters in the story. When you combine these elements, the nature of the villain, their MacGuffin, and the nature of the victim, and the scale of the risk of death is higher than in a typical action story.

Action-Epic Plots

Each subgenre includes four “plots,” which add specific conventions to the Action genre and subgenre. What is a plot? Last time I shared McKee’s definition. This time I’ll share thoughts from Ronald B. Tobias: “We have operational definitions of plot, but no grand, irrefutable definition that is absolute. We have only definitions that work for a certain series of circumstances and conditions. Your work is that series of circumstances and conditions, and your work ultimately will provide the proper definition of plot.”

Wait, that’s not very helpful, but he goes on to say, “[E]ach plot is different, but each has its roots in pattern.” So what we are looking at are patterns of events set in motion by the particular characters, setting, and means of creating the life value shift. The particular patterns of the sixteen action plots are set up by the conventions, and paid off by the obligatory scenes to create the story the reader expects to find.

Remember, the sixteen plots within the action genre can be employed in other genres that contain action elements (e.g., Thriller and War stories).

Here are the four plots within the Epic Action subgenre.

  • Rebellion: Hero against a visible tyrant
  • Conspiracy: Hero against an invisible tyrant
  • Vigilante: Hero against a criminal organization
  • Savior: Hero against someone who wants to destroy society

Like most of the Action plots, the main differences among the Epic plots are found in the characters and roles they play: a specific type of villain and with a specific MacGuffin related to control or destruction, and the victim, which can be a portion of one society to the entire world and beyond.

Conspiracy Plot

What’s special about these stories?

The villain is invisible, which creates its own interesting problems. The hero must identify who it is and how to find it. This increases the power divide between the villain and the hero because the villain can attack the hero by surprise. (You often see villains sending trained assassins after the hero.)

The hero usually has a Sidekick or two who lacks the strength and skills of the hero. This character is often a buddy or love interest. The sidekick slows the hero down because they are not as fast or strong as the hero, but also as the source of interpersonal conflict. The hero becomes  vulnerable when the sidekick is in danger. But the sidekick can also be helpful, standing in as the trickster, identifying hypocrisy, providing perspective, and creating comic relief from tension.

Conspiracy plots include Shapeshifters. These are characters who say one thing and do another. The villains are often tyrants, and hypocrisy and lies are how tyrants do business, but also, like the Hunted plot, it’s not always easy to tell who is on which side. There are genuinely shifting alliances as well as characters who are really working for the other side.

Conspiracy plots include a big external canvas. The scope of the external setting tends to be large. These stories involve travel because the villain is hidden, so the hero must seek them while fending off attacks.

Other Story Elements That Contribute Conventions to The Spy Who Dumped Me
  • Courtship Love Story subplot
  • Internal genre (see Kim’s discussion below)
  • Style: Action combined with comedy, creates a specific film category: comedy with high-octane action backdrop.
    • Comedy = Jokes are revealed in the most horrific moments of life to provide distance from and avoid facing real emotions. It also seems to invert some of the content genre conventions. (Anne discusses how this combination works here below).
  • Reality: Comedy allows for greater suspension of disbelief and allow the writers to stretch reality close to the breaking point.
Conventions for The Spy Who Dumped Me

Characters

  • Hero (Action): Audrey, an ordinary young woman who has honed her shooting skills by playing video games
  • Villain is an invisible tyrant (Action-Epic-Conspiracy): Highland (Ivan and Raisa Petrenko). Working with, for, or in competition with them are Nadedja, Drew, and Duffer.
  • Victims (Action-Epic): Audrey and Morgan, but also all of Society because our secrets will be revealed through the flash drive with its backdoor to the Internet. How this parleys into a life threatening condition for society is left open, but it’s not much of a stretch to see how the ability to manipulate personal data could give a tyrant vast power.
  • Sidekicks (Action-Epic-Conspiracy): Morgan (buddy) and Sebastian (love interest)
  • Shapeshifters (Action-Epic): Drew, Duffer, “Drew’s parents” (Ivan and Raisa Petrenko)
  • Two lovers (Love Story Subplot): Audrey and Sebastian
  • Rivals (love story subplot): Drew, Sebastian’s work
  • Helpers (Love Story Subplot): Morgan
  • Hinderers (love story subplot): Drew and Duffer
  • Mentor (baked in Worldview Maturation arc for love story subplot): Though Morgan and Audrey support each other in dark moments, this isn’t a conventional mentor relationship.

Setting/Circumstances

Big canvas within setting that puts lives at risk (Action-Epic): Audrey and Morgan are swept up in a deadly game of international crime and intrigue and must travel from LA to Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, and Berlin, at first seeking to make the MacGuffin safe and then to defeat the villain.

Means of Turning the Plot

  • The hero’s goal is to stop the villain and save the victims (action).
  • The power divide between the hero and the villain is very large (action genre): The power divide here is greater than in a typical epic film because of the contributions of the comedy style, so that it reaches the level of the absurd. Audrey and Morgan are two ordinary young women with no expertise or training in weapons or law enforcement (with the exception of Audrey’s video game skills and Morgan’s circus training, both of which become vital). Highland is meant to be a highly organized and powerful invisible criminal force in the world, though they are soundly defeated in the end.  
  • Speech in praise of the villain (action genre): This establishes the power divide, showing the reader or audience what’s at stake on the life-death spectrum. Highland is an invisible entity seeking to gain control of everyone’s secrets through the back door of the Internet. They possess the ability to co-opt government agents, hire assassins, and track phone calls, but we don’t know a lot else about them. They are mentioned with awe, but in reviewing the script after watching the film, they are spoken of with a sense of awe—international terrorist group capable of doing great and terrible things—but it’s fairly vague.

The Action genre has been around a long time, and it’s not easy to innovate the conventions readers and viewers expect to see. It seems like it’s all been done before. Action convention homage and satire become cliche if we don’t innovate, and the line between what works and doesn’t can be quite thin. Though The Spy Who Dumped Me  does not flawlessly execute all of the conventions, it does a fairly good job of innovating the high-octane action story with comedy and good friends. In other words, I think the story accomplished much of what Fogel set out to do:

“With The Spy Who Dumped Me, Fogel and co-writer David Iserson created a movie that was different from what they had seen before: their comedy featured funny, flawed females in the vein of Nicole Holofcener’s (Hall-of-senner) characters, against the kind of high-octane, action backdrop usually reserved for guys like Vin Diesel or Tom Cruise.”

Does it work? I think that depends largely on our expectations, the context in which we’re watching, and what we bring to the story. More on this below.

Other Perspectives

Kim – Internal Genres

I had a blast with this movie and was so happy to see the strong internal genre for Audrey. I made some really helpful observations about it that will help me with my own stories and I’m hoping with help you, too.

Let’s start with a quick run through of Friedman’s Framework.

  • Who is the protagonist (the person who undergoes the most change, the one whose welfare is our chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves)? Audrey
  • What is the protagonist’s situation at the beginning of the story? It’s her birthday at her local bar, best friend Morgan, recently dumped by boyfriend (via text message), never been to Europe, never finishes things (law school, art school), envies Morgan who is a natural actor and knew that’s what she wanted to do, not a natural at anything, afraid of being average, doesn’t trust herself, blind belief of Drew, incapable of lying
  • Character: willpower and motives, do we find them sympathetic?  Neutral will and motives, sympathetic, a terrible liar
  • Thought: level of thought, sophistication, and belief? Naive about people, inexperienced in travel, lots of self doubt
  • Fortune: social standing, do we fear it will get worse or hope it will get better? Single, works at grocery store, has an awesome best friend
  • What is the protagonist’s situation at the end of the story? It’s her birthday in Tokyo, best friend Morgan, she has successfully outwitted the villain (her ex-bf Drew), and now believes in herself and what she is capable of, owns her power, and can finish whatever she puts her mind to.
  • Character – Developed will & empowered motives, lies with purpose (as a spy)
  • Thought – Sophisticated about the world and herself, strong self-belief, trusts herself and knows who to trust
  • Fortune – Works as a spy with her best friend and (likely) love interest.
    1. What does the audience experience in light of this change? Proud satisfaction
    2. Express this change as a cause and effect statement.
      1. 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.
  • When Audrey, a self-deprecating woman who never travels and doesn’t believe she is capable of being anything but average, accepts the impossible task of completing a mission as a spy, she realizes all that she is capable of and no longer limits herself.
  1. Determine which Internal Genre-Subgenre best fits this cause and effect statement. Worldview-Maturation

Life Values. Tracking the Life Value changes across the story spine. First by defining out value range as specifically as possible.

One of my more recent AHAs about stories is that even in stories of the same genre/subgenre, the life value range can (and often should) be unique to the story itself.

In The Spy Who Dumped Me, Audrey’s NAIVETE to SOPHISTICATION revolves around her belief and trust in those around her and herself. Her black and white view of the world is really a black and white view of herself. This plays out something like this (start at negation of the negation):

Sophistication (most positive) Full understanding and acceptance of the truth about herself and those who influence her Recognizes Drew for exactly what he is and is able to outwit him through full belief in herself
Cognitive Dissonance (positive) Sees the truth about herself and those who influence her, but struggling to believe it Experience that she is capable of much more, still unsure whether or not she can trust Drew or Sebastian
Acknowledged Naivete (neutral) In full doubt about her black and white belief about herself of those who influence her Unsure who/what to believe or trust
Naivete (negative) Justified black-and-white belief about herself and those who influence her Belief that she is incapable but knows Drew is a spy
Naivete Masked as Cognitive Dissonance (negation of the negation) Blind black-and-white belief about herself and those who influence her Belief that she is incapable of finishing anything / being anything other than average, belief that Drew is a good guy

An interesting observation Leslie and I have made about Maturation is its many similarities to Disillusionment. In Disillusionment stories, the protagonists begins at Blind Belief and Justified Belief but then experiences Doubt and Disillusionment when those beliefs turn out to not be true in the way they thought. Disillusionment happens in Maturation stories as well, but it in only one half of the journey. Without a proper mentor to help the protagonist reconcile their cognitive dissonance, a the protagonist’s worldview shift STOPS at Disillusionment. On the other hand, with the help of a proper mentor, the protagonist is able to complete their transformation of Maturation by moving out of Cognitive Dissonance into Sophistication.

Once we know what specific flavor our life values are going to take (because we know our genre and story looking for specific elements, actions, dialogue that transmit the life values.

BH [Naivete Masked as Sophistication to Naivete]

  • See Friendman’s framework
  • Learn Drew is a spy
  • Drew says “Don’t trust anyone”, thematically this plays out as don’t trust herself

MB [Naivete to Acknowledged Naivete to Cognitive Dissonance]

  • Flashbacks
  • Morgan’s story about Drew telling her she is “a bit much”
  • At the midpoint when they are being taken from the bathroom to the gymnastics arena for interrogation – she trusts herself to hide the drive and lie successfully.
  • But she also believes that Drew’s parents are really Drew’s parents until Drew’s mom hits her in the face
  • After Sebastian helps to free them, she tells him that now she knows she can trust him
  • Learn that Duffer is a bad guy too

EP [Cognitive Dissonance to Sophistication]

  • Learns that Drew is alive, unsure what to believe, but in the end trusts herself

Despite this being a rock-solid action story with a clear ordinary to extraordinary worlds, Audrey’s transformation has a very Virgin’s Promise feel to it to me.

In her book in The Virgin’s Promise, Kim Hudson cites three variances of Virgin stories:

  • Stand-alone Virgin tale as in Ever After
  • Stories where the protagonist grows on the Hero and Virgin spectrums simultaneously as in Mulan
  • Stories with a fully-developed Virgin arc alongside a fully-developed Hero story as in Shrek, where Fiona has a Virgin arc and Shrek has a Hero arc.

Audrey’s journey feels a bit like Mulan to me, where we experience both spectrums simultaneously although not necessarily completely. Audrey feels a bit more like the Anti-Virgin, where she has Morgan telling her how great she is and how much she’s capable of but she keeps denying it.

I was able to identify several of the symbols that Kim Hudson lists for the Virgin archetype for Audrey:

  • The beginning stages of claiming one’s personal authority, an untapped potential of life (Morgan is always trying to get Audrey to own and celebrate her accomplishments–being a great shot, quick thinking during the shootout)
  • Innocence and naivety makes her a susceptible target in power games (in the EP, Audrey asks Drew if the reason why he left his stuff with her was because he thought she’d never go anywhere, and would never question anything — he admits he underestimated her.)
  • Remaining in her domestic realm of childhood as a means to keep her safe and controlled (Doesn’t travel, never been to Europe)
  • Suppressed true self is introduced through an unspoken dream and/or dormant talent (Afraid of being average, claims to not be a natural at anything)
  • A lousy boyfriend is a metaphor for living out of step with her authentic self (Didn’t recognize Drew’s inauthentic behavior, or the way he minimized Morgan)

Ending. What is the emotional feeling that resonates with the audience at the end? Is the story satisfying? What makes it so? Would I have told it any differently?

I really enjoyed the feeling of friendship in this film, and mirrored in/out of Audrey’s birthday being serenaded by Morgan. The writer/director intentionally created a film that didn’t require the women to be in competition with one another and instead showcased their awesome friendship.

An interesting side note is the All is Lost moment is hard to pinpoint; it’s just not as strong as we’re used to seeing. I suspect this is due to the friendship does not have a falling out at any point in the story and neither do the love story subplots (at least not in the way we expect), so the All is Lost moment is carried by the global external genre alone.

At first it seems to be when they are to be sent home by Wendy from MI6 but it doesn’t really play out as an All is Lost because Audrey never really flushed the drive, so nothing was lost. It’s not clear if she really wanted to go home or if she just didn’t want to give them the drive because she didn’t know who to trust (a sign she is growing in sophistication).

Or it could be when Duffer turns up in Amsterdam (somehow) and reveals himself to be a double-crosser intent on selling the drive to the highest bidder–he’s about to shoot Audrey when their big burly roommate busts in and slam dunks him WWE style. But this all happens so fast, we reach Dark Night of the Soul.

This lack of low point doesn’t make or break the film, but I felt myself waiting for it and then it never happening. It would be a fun exercise to look at the Middle Build and find ways to tweak the story to authentically achieve this moment. These are the nerdy games I like to play.

Genres in Play

  • Action (Global)
  • Worldview-Maturation (Co-Pilot Internal)
  • Love  (Subplots)
    • Drew
    • Sebastian

The Big Why. Why does this kind of story exist? Why does this specific internal subgenre exist as a pattern we can recognize? Why do we–humanity–need it?

  • What is the controlling idea/theme for this story/genre?
      • Life prevails when women recognize the truth about themselves and those who influence them, and respond with appropriate action.
  • Any theories or take aways on why humanity needs this/how it functions for us as a society?
  • Remember that Worldview stories rise out of our Self-Actualization human needs tank, the need to recognize and live out at our full potential, to be who we really are and do what we were created to do.
    • Another important element here is the representation of friendship between women and how they support each other and are not in competition with one another. This is something we’re going to talk about more in a bit.

Jarie – Dialogue

This was a fun and silly movie with not only the full monty but they also threw in the beans and franks to boot. Honestly, I had a bit of a struggle to sort out how I was going to talk about the dialogue in the film but then Anne sent me an article by P. S. Hoffman called How to Craft Distinct Character Voices and that got me thinking about how a movie like this needs compelling dialogue just as much as Pride and Prejudice does. Okay, maybe not as much but you get my drift.

The main thing I got out of the P.S. Hoffman piece that can help me (and us) look at The Spy Who Dumped Me is the difference between dialogue and character voice which is:

So if the dialogue is a tool a character uses to get a result …

Character voice is how they wield that tool.

If we look at the two main characters, Audrey Stockton (played by Mila Kunis) and Morgan Freeman (played by Kate McKinnon), we can see how character voice makes the film a lot more enjoyable and the dialogue more believable.

If we take a look at Audrey and Morgan, both have a distinct character voice that allows them to play off each other.

Audrey is a rule follower. She works as a cashier at a Trader Joe’s type place. She’s nervous and cares about what others think. Her manner of speaking is timid and usually serious. She does not want to do or say the wrong thing.

Morgan says what she thinks. Her character’s voice is the comic relief to Audrey serious nature. She’s a wide-open book who states the obvious in a funny and engaging way.

These two characters “work” together because they have annoying traits that bother each other yet they are in it together. Without that tension, none of their dialogue would move the movie forward. An example of what I’m talking about is this scene during a car chase in Vienna, right after their driver gets shot and killed

Time: 0:31:50

MORGAN: Oh my God, There is one left

AUDREY: I know. I see him.

MORGAN: Okay. Why are you using your turn signal? You’re literally telling him where we’re going.

AUDREY: Sorry. It’s a force of habit.

MORGAN: It’s a bad habit.

AUDREY: No. It’s a good habit. In most circumstances, it is a very good habit!

From this brief exchange, during a high-speed car chase, you can see each character’s voice come through. Audrey uses her turn signals since she’s the rule follower. Morgan, instead of not saying anything, has to point out the stupidity of it all. This all happens while Audrey is driving the car on top of the dead driver, who is slumped over in the seat with a bullet in his head. I mean what else would you talk about when someone is shooting at you, other than say Oh My God! This film’s OMG meter is through the roof!

The one inconsistent thing as the scene continues on is that Morgan struggles to put her seatbelt on. Even though the way Morgan talks while she is putting it on is in her authentic character voice, it’s out of character for her. Just 10 seconds before she was in the back seat with no seat belt. OMG!

Audrey even does the “mom seat belt” when they finally get rid of the gunman. Good grief. The high jinks are non stop.

What is consistent throughout the movie is the love Audrey and Morgan have for each other. It’s in a lot of the dialogue and how they talk to each other is always true to character and in their authentic voice. Even the last scene, after they foil Highland and it’s a year later. The duo finds themselves in Japan among some Yakuza and Morgan decides to do what she did at the first party, sing Karaoke. The result is food puns, which are in character for Morgan and a setup for the violence that is to come. Movie ends. Fade to black.

So where does that leave us about character voice and dialogue? This movie is not the best example of either. Since I’m studying dialogue this season, I started to not only watch more movies but also read more fiction. One author that I think nails both the dialogue and character voice is Robert B. Parker and his Spenser series. The way Parker develops the Spencer character makes the novel a joy to read and also gives a lot of comic relief. If any of our listeners have any suggestions of novels that have great dialogue and character voice, let us know. I’d love to check them out.

Valerie – Narrative Drive

I’m continuing my study of narrative drive; more specifically, how and why it works.

As we’ve seen in some past episodes, we can often learn more from stories that don’t work from those that do—and The Spy Who Dumped Me has plenty of lessons to offer up.

Narrative drive is all about grabbing and holding the viewer’s / reader’s attention. It’s about how much information the reader has with respect to the protagonist and what questions that raises in the reader’s mind. But it’s also about empathy. We, as the audience, need to care about what happens to the protagonist. We need to be rooting for her. We need to want her to get her objects of desire.

It’s pretty easy to tell whether the narrative drive is working in somebody else’s story. As the viewer, I have a whole lot of distance and objectivity about this film because I wasn’t part of the creative team. So, if I’m engaged with the film from start to finish, the narrative drive is working. If I’m not, it isn’t.

By extension then, narrative drive is very difficult to assess on our own novels. We’re simply too close to it. This is where editors come in. And I’m not just saying that because I’m an editor. I’m saying it because structural editors have (1) knowledge of storytelling principles and (2) objectivity. Lots of authors have beta readers, and I did that too when I first started. However, the beta readers (even if they’re fans of the genre you write in), don’t understand story. So, even if they really want you to succeed, the help they can give will be limited.

Ok, back to The Spy Who Dumped Me. Bottom line is that the narrative drive doesn’t work. At all. I know that because I turned the film off multiple times. Even when it was on, my attention kept going to other things; my phone, one of the animals, looking for the hand cream in my desk, etc.

The more interesting question then, is why doesn’t it work?

The film uses primarily suspense as its form of narrative drive. In other words, we know what Audrey knows. No more, no less.

The problem is that I have zero empathy for this character (or any of the characters for that matter, although Tess was wonderfully annoying!). This question of empathy fascinates me. If we continue with this format next season, I think that will be my subject of study.

At a high level, empathy means that we’re emotionally engaged with the character. We want her to succeed. We want her to get the thing(s) she’s after, her object(s) of desire. What is Audrey’s object of desire? Sure, it’s easy to say she wants to deliver the flash drive for Drew.

But the phrase is object of desire. The thing the protagonist is going after, must be a desire. She’s got to really, really want it. And there’s got to be a damn good reason for wanting it. There must be something at stake!

For starters, the whole inciting incident is weak. I didn’t believe for a second that she truly loved Drew. Therefore, the idea that she’d risk life and limb to fulfill a bizarre dying wish is pretty flimsy.

Even if I ignore that part, remember, the narrative drive at play here is suspense. The audience is only supposed to know what Audrey knows. That means that the audience can’t guess what’s going to happen either. Sure, we’ll try to guess. Especially with mysteries where the whole point of the story is to figure out whodunnit. But we don’t really want to guess accurately. What we want is to enjoy the intellectual game. By the way, this is true for lighter fare stories too, like romantic comedies. We know that in the end, the lovers will live happily ever after. But we don’t know how that will come to pass, and we don’t want to figure it out in advance.

In The Spy Who Dumped me, the story was too easy to figure out. The set ups were too obvious and there was too little innovation of conventions.

For example, in the opening scenes we see an action hero in a shootout with his enemies. This takes place in Lithuania. Then, the guy that picks up Morgan in the bar is from Ukraine. It’s not difficult to predict that he’s one of the action hero’s enemies. So, when that is revealed to be the case, it’s not a surprising revelation that connects the dots for the audience. Instead, it just makes Morgan look stupid.

Speaking of stupid … later, when Audrey is trying to hide the flash drive, it doesn’t take a genius to guess that she’s put the thing in her vagina. I think this was an attempt at innovating a trope. It didn’t work. It was too obvious. Audrey has already been set up as a bimbo, and the film spends a lot of time talking about genitals, bodily fluids and bowel movements. Again, when it’s revealed to be the case, we’re not shocked, or surprised or delighted.

The effect on narrative drive is that the story unintentionally flipped from suspense to dramatic irony. We saw it all coming. Well, maybe we didn’t see Drew’s resurrection coming, but that was too far fetched anyway. We saw him get shot in the neck, and if that didn’t kill him the four “bad guys” with machine guns who broken into the apartment would have finished him off.

So we’ve got a bit of a double whammy happening here with respect to narrative drive. The bottom line is that the suspense doesn’t work because we can guess what happens to accurately and too often. This creates the effect of dramatic irony. But, dramatic irony only works if the protagonist is empathetic—like in The King’s Speech—and Audrey isn’t empathetic. She has no clear object of desire. Sure, she has a thing she’s doing, but it doesn’t ring true as a desire. The stakes don’t resonate either; the “bad guys” are too generic, the “innocent lives” are too generic. As a result, we don’t really care whether she fulfills the mission.

Anne – Plot Holes, Violence, and Flashbacks

Valerie, I agree–this film didn’t resonate with me, though I enjoyed Kate McKinnon’s over the top comic performance.

It was, for one thing, full of annoying plot holes glaring enough to take me out of the story. I’ll just mention one: you can’t get from Los Angeles in the afternoon to Vienna, through customs, out of the airport, into the city, and to a particular cafe by 11:00 the following morning. While it’s true that I can be pretty pedantic, I’m forgiving of fallacies like that in a story that’s already working for me, but this one wasn’t. So that bugged me.

I have a whole list of other plot holes that broke up the story flow for me, but I’ll leave it to listeners to watch the movie and spot them for themselves.

More importantly, I want to say a word about violence and the Style genre. Susanna Fogel took some heat for the violence in her movie, and defended it on the grounds that in a male-centered and male-directed movie this would never have been mentioned.

Maybe or maybe not. When I chatted about this with Leslie, she pointed out that Hot Fuzz, which we covered early in Season One, and which is also comedic in style, had violence that was just as gross, but I honestly don’t think the difference here is “Ladies,” whatever the director might believe. It’s a question of tone–to use a word that’s very loaded these days.

The comedic tone of Hot Fuzz was British satirical homage. The murders were macabre jokes. Very macabre. Very British. In The Spy Who Dumped Me, in the other hand, the comedic style is frantic screwball comedy. I would expect, under that setup, that the naked Ukrainian would fall but not die; that the boyfriend’s shoulder wound would incapacitate him without needing the second bullet to the neck that appears to kill him.

MAYBE the shootout scene at the Schiele Cafe could be construed as having the same tone of violence as Hot Fuzz, because nobody we “know” dies. I’ll admit, it came across to me like a ridiculous homage to destructive shootout scenes.

But when we get to know a funny character like the Uber driver, only to have him shot in the head two minutes later, it’s in no way “funny over the top violence” or homage. It’s just horrible and off key.

On a related note, I HATED THE F*****G CHASE THROUGH ORDINARY PEOPLE’S LIVELIHOODS scenes, and there are at least two of them in this film.

I am sick of that stupid cliché. I’ve come to hate it with a fiery passion. Why preserve the rich couple’s Jaguar but destroy the workplace of a bunch of hardworking people in service jobs and rip the side view mirrors off a whole row of regular people’s cars? Why have that? Grrrr.

By the way, just for comparison, there’s a thrilling car-chase-through-city-streets in Black Panther in which no market carts, storefronts, fruit stands or innocent bystanders’ cars are notably destroyed. It can be done. It should be done. I’m so finished with wanton violence against nameless people.

Flashbacks as nonlinear story devices: The Spy Who Dumped Me uses a total of four flashbacks, with a combined length of four and a half minutes. Together they comprise a single scene from the protagonist’s point of view, with a twist of a POV shift at the end.

Taken as a single scene, it would go like this: When Drew bumps into Audrey at her 29th birthday party at a bar, they begin a warm and genuine flirtation, but it’s revealed that Drew is in communication with Sebastian, outside in a surveillance van, and that they are both spies on a mission to take out the bartender.

That’s it. That’s the flashback. It’s split into four parts, which fall at these points:

One: At 9%, we see the bumping-into and the initial conversation. This flashback forms a transition between the prologue-ish opening scenes and the Global Inciting Incident.

Two: At 20%, we see Audrey and Drew getting acquainted. It serves as an act division between Beginning Hook and Middle Build.

Three: At 36%, we see Drew and Audrey slow dancing and we witness Drew hurting Morgan’s feelings by telling her that she’s a bit much. This flashback follows a real-time scene that introduces the Russian assassin from the assassin’s point of view, and that includes no other characters, so it serves to bring our focus to the main characters.

Four: At 72%, we see the part of the flashback where the POV shifts to Sebastian outside the bar in the surveillance van. He’s trying to keep Drew from being distracted by the pretty woman. This flashback serves as a kind of glide into the Global Climax.

The use of flashbacks here is very similar in scope and placement to what we saw in The Fundamentals of Caring, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago. So I asked the same four questions:

  1. What story purpose is served by revealing that single scene in a series of flashbacks? It reveals a backstory from a year prior to the start of the main story, containing information that we might need to understand it.
  2. How would the story differ if instead of flashbacks, we got the whole backstory as a single scene right at the beginning? Knowing it all in advance would dampen narrative drive by answering several questions before we really need those answers.
  3. How would the story differ if instead of flashbacks we got the same information all at once in dialogue? This could be done, but it would be expository and awkward, very likely introducing the flaw of having one character say to the other, “Well, as you know, Audrey…” amounting to telling rather than showing.
  4. How would the story differ if the backstory were removed altogether, in any form? In this instance, I’m not convinced that the backstory was really necessary. Only the final flashback feels vital to the story. That’s the one where Sebastian reveals that he was present outside the bar when Audrey and Drew first met.

Where the other three flashbacks are just…there, just plain flashbacks out of the blue, this fourth one is effectively a “memory lane” moment, as Sebastian tells Audrey the story from his own memory. This flashback couldn’t have happened earlier in the story because Sebastian and Audrey don’t have enough trust prior to this point, and because we need it at this point to resolve remaining mysteries.

But there’s a generally accepted story principle that you don’t introduce significant new elements three-quarters of the way through a story. By that point you should be paying off earlier setups (which is why we call it the Ending Payoff).

So if you really need a flashback at that point–which this story kind of did–you will also need to go and set the expectation of flashbacks by inserting a few other flashbacks starting much earlier. I feel like that’s exactly what happened here.

Basically, I think we only have the first three flashbacks in order to justify the existence of the only one that’s really necessary–that is, the final one.

Target Audience

Valerie – Because I figured I wasn’t the target audience for this film, I asked my daughter who’s 15, if she’d seen the film and if so, whether she liked it.

She thought it was hilarious and liked it because she’s a fan of Mila Kunis. She also saw it with her friends during a Saturday afternoon excursion to the mall.So, she was primed to enjoy it. While these things helped her experience of the film, they’re all outside the control of a novelist. We’ve got to focus on the story structure.

She also found Audrey to be relatable and this, I think, is the key to the problem I was having. I looked at Audrey, a 30-year-old woman, and couldn’t relate because I was expecting her to behave like a 30-year-old woman. But she’s acting like a teenager which is why my daughter could relate.

The part that I thought was alarming, is that my daughter saw this film as an example of women who are empowered. I don’t see that at all! In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite.

With respect to narrative drive, which was my topic for today, my daughter did predict a lot of the things that happened in the movie, but because she enjoyed the jokes so much, she was willing to let them go. I had this same experience with Waking Ned Devine which we studied last season. That story is flawed too, but the gags are worth it.

So it seems that the writers decided to rely on star power and jokes to engage the audience.

Of course, then my daughter said, ‘Mom, it’s called The Spy Who Dumped Me. What did you expect?’ That’s an excellent point.

Leslie – When I was in high school, I loved Charlie’s Angels, though as I got older, I realized that three women controlled by a disembodied male voice wasn’t such a good thing. But the part of the series that resonated with me (strong women characters experiencing adventures and relationships not solely focused on dating) was present in this story, and I think that’s what enjoyed so much about it, what helped me suspend disbelief, and why it worked for me. My inner 15 year-old enjoyed the story and was right there with Avery.

Kim: Leslie found a great article that cites writer/director Susanna Fogel’s intention with the film. Here’s an excerpt: “My friendships are such a huge, important part of my life and they always have been,” says Fogel, while visiting Bustle’s office in late July. “[In] every movie about friendships, there’s so much conflict and it kind of feels like adult women are doing a version of like a teen rivalry movie… I liked showing these women being each other’s person.”

In fact, The Spy Who Dumped Me, out now, finds its main conflict in the behavior of Audrey’s (Kunis) ex boyfriend Drew (the titular spy, played by Justin Theroux). Drew dumps Audrey and unintentionally recruits her and her best friend, Morgan (McKinnon), to complete a secret mission. Because of the plot’s drama and excitement, Fogel felt there was plenty of reason for Morgan and Audrey’s friendship to remain so strong. “Had the movie not had so much external conflict, we would’ve needed to create that arc from within the friendship, because we would need some conflict,” the director explains. “But because there was so much else going on, we could steer them away from that which was nice.”

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we usually take questions from our listeners, but in this episode, we shared a comment that came in at the end of season three, from listener Jonathan Berman. Big thanks to Jonathan for sharing how the Roundtable has been useful to him! We appreciate your feedback, positive and negative, and love hearing about how you’ve applied something we’ve discussed in your own writing.

If you have a question about action-epic stories, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.

Join us next time as Jarie takes a deep dive into the dialogue in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 dark comedy Fargo. 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.

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.
Comments (3)
Author Leslie Watts

3 Comments

Seeley James says:

This is one of the Round Table’s best sessions. The team did a good job of looking at it from several different angles. And no one held back contrasting opinions. It was a simple, fun movie and those are always ripe for interpretation (plot holes abound). Not having seen the film (I’ve not seen a lot of the films you discuss) I was able to visualize the scenes in question. When you go for complex stories like Cloud Atlas and Inception, it’s harder to follow.

Thanks for all the work you do. These are terrific podcasts. I recommend them to all my writing friends.

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Valerie Francis says:

We do operate under the assumption that listeners have watched the films we’re discussing. As story nerds, consuming story (whether through film of novels) widely and deeply is what we do. It’s essential for those who want to level up. Try watching films we review, even if (or especially if) they’re not your cup of tea.

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks, Seeley! I’m so glad the podcast is useful! And thanks for recommending them to your writing friends!

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