Editor Roundtable: Whiplash

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This week, Valerie looks at Whiplash in order to study forces of antagonism. This 2014 music performance film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle.

Content Warning: Whiplash is about a music teacher who believes that mental, emotional and even physical assault will help a student become a great musician. Scenes of violence make it an anxious and possibly triggering to watch. The character uses very strong language, including homophobic, anti-semitic, and misogynistic slurs, as well as huge amounts of swearing.


The Story

  • Beginning Hook – Andrew Neimann is a first year music student at the Shaeffer Conservatory in New York. When Terence Fletcher, a band leader he admires, offers him a spot in Studio Band, Andrew must decide whether he’ll accept or not. He accepts and is humiliated in the first rehearsal. 
  • Middle Build – Having been humiliated by Fletcher, Andrew decides to dedicate himself even more to developing his craft. As you’d expect from a performance story, the middle build is preoccupied with the training. When the city bus breaks down on the way to the Dunellen music competition, Andrew must decide whether he’ll find another way to the event or forfeit his opportunity to perform as the core drummer of Studio Band. Andrew rents a car and after a series of events that continue to ramp the tension up to an almost unbearable level (including a car crash in which he suffers injuries to his head and hands), Andrew goes on stage but is unable to play. When Fletcher throws him out of the band, he suffers a mental break, is dismissed from Shaeffer entirely, and reports Fletcher’s abuse to authorities. 
  • Ending Payoff – Fletcher offers Andrew a chance to play in his new band at the JVC competition. When Andrew realizes that Fletcher has set him up to fail, and to be publicly humiliated, he must decide whether he will walk away from music forever, or go back on stage and show what he can do. Andrew goes back on stage, and for the first time in the film, takes control over Fletcher and his music. During his performance, he self-transcends and his genius shines through. He finally earns Fletcher’s respect.

Additional comments on the story:

Kim: This felt like a great example of Performance and Status—they are so tightly woven it’s hard to tell where one stops and the other begins!

Anne: This was a tough one for me. I had to overcome some genuine anxiety witnessing close-up a man with a scary face yelling abuse at powerless young people, and I know I’m not alone in that. Whiplash is one of those movies I’d never have watched if not for my Roundtable buddies, and I ended up getting a lot out if just from looking at one basic Story Grid fundamental, Objects of Desire. But please don’t make me watch it again!

The Principle – Valerie – Forces of Antagonism

I’m continuing my study of Forces of Antagonism, and this week, we have the first instance this season of an external villain as the main antagonist.

One quick note before I begin. If you recall the episodes I did on Narrative Drive, I said then that as a general rule, while a story may primarily be one form of Narrative Drive, the other two forms are usually also present. Well, this is only the third time I’ve specifically studied Forces of Antagonism and I can already see a similar pattern forming; one type of antagonist dominates a story, but so far at least, all three forms of antagonism are in play. 

In Whiplash, the external villain dominates, and that’s who I’ll be focusing on.

I chose this film because I really hate Fletcher. I mean, I loathe him. I’m hard pressed to think of another film that causes me to react so strongly to an antagonist, or one that makes me feel so good when the protagonist finally triumphs. 

So, this week, I want to find out why this story evokes such strong emotion in me. How did Damien Chazelle do it? Why do I hate Fletcher so much? And why do I feel such catharsis at the end?

This is another huge topic and I’ll cover it as best I can in the time I have today. But this is something I’ll be coming back to in my inner circle—there’s a wealth of information to mine in this film—so if you want to find out more, go to valeriefrancis.ca/innercircle to sign up. 

For today, I’m going to focus on the antagonist’s role in creating an emotional connection between the audience and the story, by specifically looking at empathy and shapeshifting characters.

Empathy: Let’s start with empathy. Last season I looked at this in some detail and I said that the protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but the audience does have to empathize. An example of this is the character of Melvin Udall in As Good As It Gets

In Whiplash, Andrew Neimann is instantly likable, but empathy is also established right from the opening scene. Here we have a first year music student, minding his own business, practicing his craft late into the night. He’s not bothering anyone, he’s just doing his thing. He’s working hard to better himself. We find out later that he’s the alternate drummer for B-Band, so he’s pretty much the lowest guy in the school. But his goal—his conscious want or external object of desire—is to be one of the greatest drummers in the world, on par with Buddy Rich. Fletcher enters the practice room (his status is obvious), and basically, he messes with Andrew’s head. 

In this two-minute scene, Fletcher comes off as an asshole. He’s obviously arrogant and the antagonist, but the audience doesn’t yet have any idea of the extent of his brutality. That’s ok though. This is the opening two minutes. All this scene needs to do is establish what this story is about and who the characters are. 

The reason I hate Fletcher so much is because I empathize with Andrew so much! The question here is, how does Fletcher contribute to establishing the empathy we feel for Andrew? The answer is that he doesn’t merely contribute to it, he creates it. Yes, we already admire Andrew’s work ethic and his dedication to his craft, but the interaction with Fletcher underscores it. He demands that Andrew prove his talent by playing his rudiments, and then the double time swing.

Fletcher makes Andrew feel stupid, and we can all relate to feeling that way. We’ve all been intimidated by someone we admire, and we’ve all been terrified of looking like an idiot in front of them. Andrew wants to impress this man. He refers to Fletcher as “sir” and later in the film his father comments on how important Fletcher’s opinion is to Andrew. 

When Fletcher insults him by calling him a wind up monkey, and then walks out as he’s giving it his all, we pity Andrew. He doesn’t deserve to be treated that way, and we automatically connect to the injustice of it all. What Fletcher does is not fair!

So, from the opening scene, the audience has chosen sides. We are Team Andrew all the way. We don’t like this Fletcher guy and we’re already hoping that somehow, some way, Andrew’s going to the chance to wipe that smug look off Fletcher’s face. 

This is the starting poing of the film! Chazelle ratchets the tension up from here and there are some parts of the story that are so intense, it’s almost hard to watch. There’s a whole Power of 10 study to be done on this film, and maybe I’ll do that for the inner circle too. But suffice it to say that Andrew does indeed get his chance to wipe the smug look from Fletcher’s face, and it is delicious. The audience absolutely savours it.

Empathy continues to deepen for Andrew right to the ending payoff. Fletcher admits to wandering the hallways of the practice rooms late at night, searching for a player to develop. So effectively, Fletcher is a predator and Andrew is a bright-eyed, bushy tailed young man, eager to make his mark on the world. Andrew is a sitting duck from start to finish. 

Shapeshifters: Let’s look at shapeshifters next. When I studied psychological thrillers, and stories with a psychological element, one of the common things I noticed is that these kinds of stories have a whole cast of shapeshifting characters. The more the better. Logically, that makes sense. If a story is about, or involves, the psychological decline of the protagonist, then these shapeshifting characters serve to destabilize her. It makes her question what’s real and what’s not real; who she should trust and who she shouldn’t trust. For example, in Black Swan, Nina’s mother should be a solid mentor, right? But she isn’t. She’s also an antagonist. Thomas and Lily should likewise be a mentor and ally respectively, but they’re antagonists too. 

In Whiplash, we have the same thing happening. Fletcher, as the teacher, should be Andrew’s mentor. In fact, that’s the assumption Andrew is working from right until the end of the middle build. Sure, he knows Fletcher is tough and an asshole, and abusive, but he accepts it because he’s still seeing him as a mentor. He’s still working from the fundamental belief that Fletcher is a mentor and is therefore in his corner.

And isn’t this the nature of abusive relationships?

We see a person in a particular role and assume that the person therefore embodies the traits we believe go with that role. We see a spouse as a partner, as someone who is in our corner “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”. We believe parents are our protectors and provide unconditional love. We assume religious leaders are spiritual people who protect us. We assume teachers are nurturing and are there to bring out the best in a student. 

What happens when this isn’t the case? What happens when the person we believed was one thing, turns out to be another? It messes with our heads! And worse, it causes the people around us to doubt our stories and question our sanity when we speak up, because they too are working from the assumption that the person in question embodies the traits that are generally believed to go along with the role they play.

This has been the foundation for the psychological decline for the protagonists in The Girl On The Train, Black Swan, Primal Fear and now, Whiplash. Powerful stuff.

So, how does Fletcher’s role as a shapeshifting Mentor/Villain contribute to the story?

Well, it actually drives the entire story! Fletcher walks on screen one minute into the film. From that moment until the final few minutes when Andrew comes back on stage and at the JVC performance, Fletcher is in control. Andrew is nothing more than his plaything. He isn’t passive, but it’s still the most heartbreaking game of cat and mouse ever. 

Anne: I spotted another shapeshifter motif in the film, Valerie. Andrew, too, shows signs of shapeshifting. In a number of key scenes, especially the dinner table scene and the scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, he takes on milder versions of Fletcher’s way of judging and berating people around him. I think Andrew’s own partial transformation into a Fletcher is a key part of the story. And there’s one odd little moment at about 37 minutes in where a very small man—presumably the stage manager—comes into the green room before the first big performance, and Fletcher shouts at him for no apparent reason, calling him “Mini-Me.” I felt that otherwise unnecessary moment was the filmmaker’s way of pointing to Andrew’s own transformation later in the story.

Valerie: Oh yes, I agree. This is Andrew’s inner antagonist—his shadow—at play. This story is so rich, I could spend the whole hour talking about the different Forces of Antagonism here and still only scratch the surface. Somewhere along the line, I heard Christopher Vogler say that in the best stories, each of the characters in the main cast will embody each of the archetypes, and I agree with that.

Back to Whiplash

Shawn, and others, say that the middle build belongs to the villain. In Whiplash, because Fletcher is a shapeshifter, the whole story belongs to the villain. And it’s a very effective strategy for hooking an audience and keeping them engaged until the bitter end. Where Fletcher leads, Andrew follows because he believes his teacher has his best interest at heart. It doesn’t occur to him that Fletcher is actually a sadistic bastard. Even in the ending payoff, after Andrew has lost everything and after he thinks he’s made Fletcher pay, he falls into Fletcher’s trap again. Because remember, Andrew’s object of desire is unwavering—Fletcher knows it and he uses it against him. Yes, at the end of the middle build Andrew throws his music away and stores his kit, but the dream is still alive. He still wants to be the next Buddy Rich, he just doesn’t think it’s in the cards for him. His father’s words of “it’s just life, there are other options” are rattling around in his head.

We can clearly see the emotional and psychological toll this adventure is having on Andrew. He’s coming unravelled and risks his life for the chance to perform. From the midpoint shift, when Fletcher yells at Andrew to earn the part for Caravan to the end of the middle build, when Andrew has been kicked out of Shaeffer … it’s almost unbearable to watch. The marathon “drum-off” between Andrew, Tanner and Connolly is hard enough, but the Dunellen competition is beyond tense. Talk about being on the edge of your seat! Fletcher has pushed Andrew to the breaking point. He did it to his previous student, Sean who we learn committed suicide as a result of the anxiety and depression brought on by Fletcher. And when get that bit of information, our minds reel back to the exchange Andrew observed between Fletcher and the little girl.  This creates a feeling of absolute terror because we know that unless Fletcher is stopped, that little girl is doomed to suffer the same fate at Sean and Andrew.

It’s not until Andrew realizes that Fletcher has set him up at the JVC performance, and he’s publicly humiliated that he sees Fletcher for who he is. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that this low point for the global external genre performance story coincides with the high point of Andrew’s internal status story. This relationship between external and internal genres also happens in Black Swan, The Girl On the Train, The Silence of the Lambs, Pride and Prejudice and all other well-constructed stories. 

The Villain Has A Point: And finally, it’s crucial that we remember that the villain is the hero of his own story. The antagonist has to have a point. We don’t need to agree with his tactics, but his objects of desire have to make just as much sense to us as the protagonist’s. There’s a brilliant example of this in Whiplash. Let’s take a listen.

Fletcher: I don’t know if you heard, I’m not at Shaeffer anymore.

Andrew: Yeah, I did hear that. Did you quit?

Fletcher: Not exactly. Some parents got a kid, from Sean Casey’s year I think, to say some things about me. Although why anybody would have anything other than peaches and cream to say about me is a mystery. That’s a good laugh, right?

Andrew: I’m sorry.

Fletcher: No, it’s ok. Listen, I get it. I know I made enemies. I’m conducting a little…they brought back the JVC Fest this year. They got me opening in a couple of weeks with a pro band.

Andrew: That’s great.

Fletcher: Yeah, it’s alright. Truth is, I don’t think people understood what I was doing at Schaeffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms at people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong, the next Charlie Parker. I told you that story about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?

Andrew: Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head.

Fletcher: Exactly. Parker was a young kid, pretty good on the sax, he gets up to play at a cutting session and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. He’s laughed off stage and cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices and he practices and he practices with one goal in mind—never to be laughed at again. A year later, he goes back to The Reno, and he steps up on that stage and he plays the best motherfuckin’ solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones had just said ‘That’s ok, Charlie. That’s alright. Good job.’ Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well shit, I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And people wonder why jazz is dying. I tell you what, every Starbucks “Jazz” album just proves my point really. There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’. 

Andrew: But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?

Fletcher: No, man. No. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.

Andrew: Yeah. 

Fletcher: The truth is, Andrew, I never really had a Charlie Parker but I tried. I actually fucking tried and that’s more than most people do. And I will never apologize for how I tried.

As much as I hate to admit it, Fletcher has a point—and an excellent point at that. Society accepts mediocrity but that doesn’t cut it for people who want to be at the top of their field. Charlie Parker wouldn’t have been the Charlie Parker that has gone down in music history without someone to bring out the best in him. I admire teachers who want to bring out the best in their students. That’s how Fletcher sees himself. He genuinely doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his approach. The irony here is that he and Andrew have the same goal. They both know that Andrew has it in him to be one of the best in the business, and they both want him to fulfill that destiny. 

Other Perspectives

Leslie – POV/Narrative Device

I’m focusing on POV and narrative device this season. As I’ve said before, if genre is what your story is about, POV and narrative device are how you present the story to your reader. Whether we’re analyzing a story or thinking about our own, a great place to start is with the problem that arises from the premise. 

What narrative problem is presented by the storyteller’s premise?

Chazelle has said he wants to illuminate the line between profession and obsession and that means exploring what makes an artist or professional extraordinary. The primary answer is work or practice and sacrifice. The problem with the premise, then, is that practice is repetitive and usually happens in isolation, which isn’t very interesting for readers or viewers. 

How is the problem solved in this film? By focusing on the relationship between the student and mentor. Of course the mentor is also an important requirement of becoming extraordinary and has a great impact on the line between profession and obsession. On its face, this is a solid choice for the story.  

A secondary problem is, how do you help the story consumer (reader or viewer) feel the real conflicts and stakes in the pursuit of extraordinary performance? How can you illuminate an area of life most people don’t have access to? You amplify the typical events beyond reality, just like stage makeup is a lot more intense than everyday application because severe lighting makes it invisible. Chazelle said he wanted this to play as a thriller, and I think he’s hit that mark.

I read an interview with a music school professor who talked about what’s realistic in the film and what’s not. The tears and sweat are real, but the level of bleeding we see is not—calluses and popped blisters, yes, bleeding on the drum, no. The blood and the way it’s presented show us where Andrew is at in his journey and helps us experience what it’s like to feel that kind of pressure. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, cigarettes and alcohol are used the same way. 

Here’s my take on what these bodily fluids represent: the tears are a manifestation of the emotional toll this level of performance takes; the sweat is normal physical effort one puts in to become good (Tanner and Connolly are willing to sweat); the blood is the extraordinary physical and emotional effort and the sacrifice that Andrew chooses to endure to become great. 

The music school professor mentioned above said the long hours and struggle to find balance are real, but the over-the-top abusive mentor-student relationship is not. But this exaggeration creates the subjective experience of the story and help us feel the pressure of the performance environment.

So this is how Chazelle solved two big narrative problems of the story. How does this impact the controlling idea?

What is the controlling idea? The typical controlling idea in a Performance story is: We gain respect when we commit to expressing our gifts unconditionally. 

In this story: We have a positive ending—Andrew gains respect by the end: both self-respect and third-party validation of his effort. We can discuss whether as one critic put it, Andrew has lost his humanity, but he has achieved respect and esteem or positive regard on multiple levels by the end. 

Kim: I thought the look on Andrew’s father’s face as he watched him in the final solo performance was really incredible. Like he had no idea what his son was truly capable of. And this question of whether or not Andrew has lost his humanity in his pursuit is interesting. It’s not unlike Black Swan where the pursuit of perfection carries a great cost. Nina does lose her humanity in pursuit of her goal, but for me Andrew doesn’t. I was so glad he went back out on stage in the end, but for Nina I wasn’t. I just wanted her to live. (I guess that’s the line for me when it comes to performance, haha.)

Leslie: Great observations, Kim!  

What does the other element of the controlling idea, commiting to expressing his gifts unconditionally, mean here? How does Andrew do this? I think Andrew needs to learn to navigate the relationship with his mentor and pursue excellence for positive self-regard, not for Fletcher’s approval. Mentors are necessary, but if the mentor fails or betrays the protagonist, the student must transcend the mentor. 

In the beginning, Andrew does whatever Fletcher tells him to the best of his ability. And when Fletcher betrays him, he must choose whether to accept shame or achieve self-regard. What does that look like as a practical matter? In the middle build when Fletcher betrays Andrew at the Dunellen competition, he lashes out then tries to give up his pursuit of respect or extraordinary performance. Of course, Andrew can’t quite give it up. (This reminds me so much of the end of The Hurtlocker, which only strengthens the connection between War and Performance stories that Anne has mentioned before.) In the ending payoff when Fletcher betrays Andrew, he goes back on stage and sacrifices to express his gift, as opposed to pleasing his mentor.  

The specific controlling idea for this story is: We gain respect when we actively choose to sacrifice our need for the mentor’s regard and express our gifts unconditionally for ourselves.  

Now I want to turn to the elements of narrative device and POV. As I’ve mentioned before, when we have a covert narrative device, that is, when it’s not openly revealed to the reader/audience member, and especially in film, we have to look for clues to determine the details of the narrative device. This is a subjective process, and you might see something different. The point is to look closely at what is actually there (the details, the distance from which we see them, etc.) and imagine what the POV/ND could be if this were a written story. 

What’s the POV? I’m calling this objective omniscient. With close up shots we can sense what Andrew and Fletcher are (most likely) thinking, so we’re in the realm of omniscient POV. While characters express opinions about what Andrew should do and about Fletcher and his methods, the storyteller doesn’t tell us what we should think. When the storyteller wants to explore the line between positive and negative, this is an excellent approach. 

What’s the narrative device? 

Who is telling the story? Someone like Chazelle who has been inside this world, but now has perspective about the experience and can see the challenge that mentors and students face. I see this narrating entity in the role of threshold guardian.

To whom? My best guess is that this story is for young artists and professionals to warn them that the road to becoming a truly extraordinary artist requires deep sacrifice and sometimes mentors are deeply selfish. If you are Tanner or Connolly, there’s no shame in that, but realize it and adjust your goals accordingly. If you are Andrew, you need to figure out how to deal with the mentors who will betray you.

A secondary audience includes people who deeply appreciate art but aren’t familiar with “Planet Performance” as Shawn calls it. In other words, they are big fans but don’t understand the real sacrifice required to produce extraordinary art.

In what form? It’s as if someone like the ghosts from A Christmas Carol is showing us particular events to help us illuminate this world, but they aren’t commenting on the events.

Technique tip: Camera angles are useful both as a very rough guide for what a paragraph should include (when the camera moves, start a new paragraph), but also determining narrative distance (how close are we to what we are seeing). 

Why? I think the narrator wants to illuminate the incredible sacrifice and get people to consider whether the sacrifice is worth it. We aren’t meant to feel comfortable. This is not Billy Elliot, though we get a sense of the pressures that the young dancer experienced there. If we were talking about football, we might wonder whether traumatic brain injuries are worth the entertainment. 

How well does the Narrative Device work here? Brilliantly. The story presented this way gives us a taste of what it’s like to be in that world and under that kind of pressure. Even though unspoken, the question comes through loud and clear: Is it worth it? And the answer is not an easy one. 

Kim– Life Values in the Beginning Hook / Setups & Payoffs

The main question I am studying this season is what information does the audience need to have before the inciting incident? In other words, what aspects of the status quo do you need to communicate to the audience? And how do you do that effectively (you know, without being boring)?

I want to bring in the concept of Conventions and Obligatory scenes today to aid our discussion. As you will have heard in one of the recent bite size episodes:

  • Conventions introduce characters, setting, and the means for conflict to occur. They show us the way things ARE, which establishes the global Life Values
  • Obligatory Scenes are moments of change—events, revelations, decisions that shift the global Life Values and change things for the protagonist. 
  • Conventions are like nouns and act as setups and Obligatory Scenes are like verbs and act as payoffs.

Okay, so the Global Inciting Incident is the first obligatory scene of any genre. It’s commonly known as the Call to Adventure and is genre specific. In an action story it’s an attack by the villain, in a love story it’s lovers meet, and in performance story it’s an opportunity to perform in whatever the sub genre medium is. 

Now this obligatory scene may not be the inciting incident of the BH. In my experience it is more likely the Turning Point Progressive Complication of the BH. 

So to restate my question, what information does the audience need to know before the Global Inciting Incident / Call to Adventure? What Conventions needs to be introduced to set up this Obligatory Scene? So how do we ensure the Life Value shift in the Obligatory Scene really pays off? 

We want the audience to really feel the shift and experience it as a distinct before and after

You will notice that nearly every story has a high point of perceived victory right before the All is Lost moment. This high-high makes the All is Lost and subsequent Dark Night of the Soul that much more devastating, because we can feel the change through the distinct before and after.

Lara Willard, the author of one of my favorite story structure frameworks, the 8C’s of Plotting, refers to this high point moment as Elation, followed by Collapse, and Gloom. What I love about her model is that she identifies terms for both the event beat and the protagonist’s reaction. This creates a powerful cause and effect. Her model is a free download on her website, and was a huge part of my story structure education on my path to discovering Story Grid. 

Okay so back to the BH of Whiplash … 

Let’s listen to the opening scene. Andrew is drumming alone at a set in the practice room. He sees someone and stops. It’s Fletcher …

Andrew is drumming alone at a set in the practice room. He sees someone and stops.

Andrew: I’m sorry, I’m sorry

Fletcher: No, stay. What’s your name?

Andrew: Andrew Naiman, sir

Fletcher: What year are you?

Andrew: I’m a first-year

Fletcher: You know who I am?

Andrew: Yes, sir

Fletcher: So you know I’m looking for players.

Andrew: Yes, sir

Andrew: Then why did you stop playing?

Andrew drums a sequence then concludes.

Fletcher: Did I ask you to start playing again?

Andrew: Sorry, I —

Fletcher: I asked why you stopped playing and your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up monkey

Andrew: Sorry, I thought —

Fletcher: Show me your rudiments (takes off jacket, hangs it up on hook)

Andrew: Yes, sir

Andrew paradiddles. Fletcher cuts him off with a closed fist

Fletcher: Double-time swing (claps)

Andrew plays.

Fletcher: No double time. Double it. Faster. Faster.

Andrew struggles and closes his eyes, then hears the door slam shut. Andrew opens his eyes, he’s alone. He sighs, frustrated and disappointed

The door opens and Fletcher comes back in,

Fletcher: Oopsy-daisy. Forgot my jacket. 

Retrieves jacket and leaves again. 

Andrew hangs his head at the drumset. 

Superimposed: Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Fall Semester

Now this opening scene is brilliant in a number of ways. It acts as a microcosm of the story, and an excellent mirror of the ending. And it introduces our primary conventions:

  • Characters: Protagonist Andrew who is a first year, Mentor-Antagonist who is a music instructor of some kind. We get a feel for who they are and how they are. 
    • Pro tip: when you’re introducing a character, focus more on their internal elements (thought, character, fortune), their behavior, and their essential action than on characteristics. And how can their physical description be an extension of their internal elements and essential action? 
    • For example: Fletcher’s all black outfit. 
  • Setting: a school of some kind, Shaffer Music Conservatory
  • Means of turning the plot: that Fletcher is looking for players

And this scene turns on Life Values of Respect and Shame. Andrew is practicing, a mentor arrives that Andrew wants to impress (desires respect), the mentor shifts in his demeanor and it’s clear that respect is not easily won. Then Andrew is asked for rudiments (basics) and double time swing … and corrected. He is struggling with his performance. Then he heard the door close. He’s alone. The mentor has left. This is a TPPC. We’ve shifted from the opportunity for respect to shame. 

And now we know what kind of story this is.

Okay let’s put a pin in this scene for a minute and keep going. The next scenes go like so: 

  • Later that night, movie theater with Dad
  • Then Andrew heads back to dorm and doesn’t join in the party
  • Next day at rehearsal with B band, the conductor’s laid back demeanor.
    • Key moment that acts as Set Up: Other player points out shadow behind the door. Fletcher listening. in… then walks away. Drummer shakes his head.. Nah not today.
  • Later Andrew walks by A band rehearsal, Fletcher sees him peeking in and Andrew keeps walking
  • Andrew in practice room, trying the double time swing, looks at pic of Buddy Rich. plays the CD of Birdland
  • Back in class, Andrew playing this time but he’s off tempo. Conductor says, “alright that’s enough of that. Back to the core drums.”, and core drummer Connolly says, “Dude what have you been practicing?”, and just then the doors fly open. It’s Fletcher. This is a payoff … he’s looking for players
    • He takes over the rehearsal to run quick auditions
    • Does through all the instruments, super rude. 
    • Then gets to drums and asks them for double-time swing (what he tested Andrew on in opening scene, and what Andrew has been practicing). 
    • Both Connolly and Andrew play and get cut off quickly.
    • Then, the Turning Point of this scene: Fletcher says, “Drums, with me.” And when Connolly gets up looking smug, he says, “No, no, no. Other drums.” HE MEANS ANDREW! LIFE VALUE SHIFT!
    • And then he tells Andrew, “Room B-16 tomorrow morning. 6am Don’t be late.”
    • Andrew sits back down in his chair and the other drummer is pissed

Okay, so what I want you to consider here is how effective would this scene be if we hadn’t already had the opening scene? I’d argue not very effective. 

  • Having a chance to witness the kind of mentor-antagonist that Fletcher is in the first scene puts us on edge (like Andrew, and everyone else) as we anticipate crossing paths with him again.
  •  And it makes Fletcher’s behavior in this scene a progressive complication (wow, he’s even ruder this time!). 
  • Also, we know he’s looking for players (he tells us in scene 1, he listens at the door, and then enters after Andrew plays) and there is something about Andrew that intrigues him. 
  • And this shift from Shame (both by Fletcher in scene 1, by his bandmates who shit-talk about him to Connolly earlier, and his own conductor in this scene) to Respect (by Fletcher in front of everyone) means so much more because we had the first scene. 
  • Sure, the way everyone reacts when he enters the room, and the way he enters the room, not to mention the way he talks down to everyone, certainly sets the tone, but it would not have been as personal to our protagonist.
  • The contrast of having the opening scene be a one on one/two person scene that ends negatively, and then having this scene be a group scene that ends positively is very effective. 

And these two interactions with Fletcher are both setups for the first big rehearsal that is to come at the end the BH … talk about progressive complications!

So this story is a great example of a killer opening scene that both hooks the audience and does the important housekeeping tasks of the status quo. This is opposed to the opening scene that either:

  • introduces status quo stuff but FEELS like status quo (zzzzz)
  • or the high-octane conflict scene that doesn’t introduce what we need to be oriented in the world/story

But when you can craft an opening scene that hooks us and informs us, you will make your audience very happy.

Anne – Objects of Desire 

Some time ago, we considered looking at Full Metal Jacket for the podcast, but decided against it because it was too brutal for some of us to even watch. I personally felt much the same way about Whiplash

Come to find out I’m not the first person to see similarities between Fletcher the abusive music teacher in Whiplash and Hartman the abusive sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. Both characters represent a belief that testing the spirit of the student or recruit through verbal and physical abuse results in a better performer. Both are arguably psychopaths. Both films raise the question of whether a psychopath like that could possibly be right about that belief. Both stories represent that path to success as the only one, and leave us doubting whether a more positive, less punitive method can produce greatness.

As we’ve heard in Valerie’s clip, that view is explicitly stated by the Mentor/Antagonist in Whiplash. I found the story personally distressing because of that message, and had a very hard time getting through it, let alone finding something instructive in it. 

This is a problem I often run into when I either absolutely love a story or simply can’t stand a story: it’s very hard to be objective and look at the structural elements of story as a writer, if all that’s resonating in your head is your own emotional response to it, good or bad.

But let me give it a try. Whiplash is effectively a two-person story: protagonist and antagonist, student and mentor. Andrew has a couple of rivals for the core drummer position, but neither has any real character. They’re both there to demonstrate that there is competition for the desired object. Andrew’s father and the very short-lived girlfriend serve important purposes, but have small roles.

So there are really only two characters whose wants and needs the story has to deliver on: Andrew and Fletcher. Andrew’s conscious want is shown and stated from the first scene: he wants to be a great drummer. He wants to succeed in the jazz music business. This is demonstrated in his sweaty, determined practicing, in his CDs of the masters, and in the revelation that he’s a student at an elite New York music school. 

Later in the story he expresses the degree of this desire—the price he seems willing to pay—in a very good meal scene: Andy says he’d rather die like Charlie Parker at 34, drunk and loaded on heroin, than live to 90 as a nobody.

But within the very first scene, which Kim just played for us, we see another want appearing. Fletcher comes into his practice room and asks for a demonstration of a particular drumming technique. Andrew takes this person very seriously. He wants to impress him, to win with him. And for the rest of the story, these two desires: to excel at his craft, and to prove himself to Fletcher, go hand in hand. He sees Fletcher’s methods as the kind of price he must pay to be like Charlie Parker.

But what does Andrew need

Remember, objects of desire are both the conscious wants of the character and the subconscious needs. It can’t be said too often: the protagonist must become conscious of that subconscious need by the global crisis. In a prescriptive or positive story, they embrace that need, even if it means giving up the want, because only through changing paths from want to need can they fully express their gift. In a cautionary or negative story, the protagonist fails to recognize or change from external want to internal need, and therefore fails to attain either.

Sometimes the need is more obvious to the reader or the viewer than it is to the protagonist, and boy is it obvious to us from the very first scene: Andrew needs to stand up to the bullying mentor and take charge of his own path to success. Andrew, however, doesn’t become fully conscious of this need until that really impressive final scene. He literally almost dies—certainly threatens his own well-being—in order to achieve his conscious desire of impressing Fletcher, in the scene where he wrecks his car and still goes onstage, bloody and nearly passing out. 

In the climax of the middle build, he’s been expelled from the fancy music school for attacking Fletcher physically. The attack was the first time he acted out against the bullying, but unfortunately it takes just as violent a form as Fletcher’s methods.

In becoming “like the enemy,” Andrew loses his place in the school. He seems to have lost his chance to gain his desire, and is confronted with the opportunity—even the duty—to come forward with what he and other musicians have suffered at Fletcher’s hands. After considering carefully—which the film shows us with a few nonlinear flashbacks—he says the fateful words to the investigator: “Just tell me what to say.” He is going to testify against Fletcher, which will get Fletcher fired.

This is the beginning of Andrew’s realization that what he needs—what he has needed from day one—is to stand up against Fletcher and againsts the methods Fletcher represents. When he encounters Fletcher again at the start of the ending payoff, Andrew seems to see Fletcher through wiser eyes, without fear. But he still wants to impress him—and he still wants to be a star drummer. He can’t resist letting himself be manipulated one more time, for the opportunity to join Fletcher’s new ensemble.

Fletcher plays yet another mind game, embarrassing himself and the whole band before a full house at Carnegie Hall just to humiliate Andrew. When Fletcher dismisses him from the stage, it’s the final turning point. Andrew leaves, but gathers his courage, turns around, comes back onto the stage, and simply takes over the performance. This dramatic and visible shift from want to need is what makes the story so satisfying among viewers who could stomach the rest of it.

But we also need to understand the antagonist’s objects of desire. Fletcher seems to have very little internal genre. He wants to hammer out at least one great artist in the forge fire of his hatred, cruelty, and abuse. He genuinely seems to believe that his methods are valid and will eventually produce one star, as we heard in Valerie’s clip. But that comes late in the story.

How do we detect it earlier? Through his appalling behavior from the very first scene. That behavior does signal a burning rage to get better music out of his band than they seem capable of, but it’s so close to psychopathic that we can only conclude that maybe what he really wants is just to dominate and mind-fuck his acolytes. That’s all we see him doing. Running hot and cold towards a favorite, mistreating one musician to get another one to improve, making everyone else walk on eggshells to avoid his abuse. He even fakes strong emotion while he tells about the death of a former student, which he lies and says was in a car accident but which we later learn was a suicide.

His musicians show absolutely no pleasure in making music. They’re terrified, but they’re all so grateful to be on his A-Team that they accept his abuse and are just glad when it falls hardest on someone else.

The very final scene of the film seems to suggest that yes, Fletcher really did want to forge that one great jazz artist, because the story ends with him apparently ceding the whole performance—basically submitting—to Andrew, and looking pretty happy about it. 

To me, that’s the most difficult aspect of this story, the one that makes it kind of a “cilantro” movie that either people love or loathe. Is it celebrating the effectiveness of a psychopath’s violent methods in creating a great musician? It’s unclear to me, but the answer feels like yes. Andrew would not be the drummer he is in that last scene without the damage he did to himself to impress his already damaging teacher. 

Though I can certainly appreciate the triumph of Andrew’s shift from the want to the need—that is from wanting to impress Fletcher to taking charge of his own path to success—I was left with the bad feeling that a true villain also got what he wanted and needed without any meaningful punishment.

The real question I was left with in this film is, “Did Andrew ultimately succeed because of finally standing up to the psychopath Fletcher? Will he, too, end up suicidal? Or is he, too, taking on those same cold, manipulative traits?” 

Whether or not the filmmaker intended that question, when I really examined the wants and needs of Fletcher, that’s what I had to conclude. Fletcher creates suicides with his “success” method, but if those suicides live long enough to get famous or join the high ranks of the jazz world, that’s okay with him, and it’s okay with Andrew, too.

Final Thoughts 

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?

Leslie: My primary takeaway is in the details. Chazelle said to film the intense drumming scenes, he used storyboards with lots and lots of crude drawings to help them achieve the camera angles to transmit the story’s meaning. They had a limited amount of time in which to shoot the film, so they needed to get it right. 

I recommend bringing this level of attention to your revision at the micro level—I’m talking about scenes and beats, but also at the line-by-line level. To be clear these are tasks of the later stages of revision, not when drafting or in global revision stages. These details can add complexity to your story making it memorable and rich enough to be worthy of rereading. Paying attention to the functional equivalent of camera angles and the blood, sweat and tears in your story is the difference between a good story that works (which is no mean feat!) and an extraordinary one that contributes to the global literary conversation on our human experience.

My other takeaway is that performance stories are nourishing for writers, and they don’t have to be about writing to give you the kick in the pants or peptalk you need at the right moment. 

Kim: When crafting your story’s opening, it’s important to identify your first obligatory scene, and then intentionally introduce the elements the audience needs to know first in order for that moment to have the impact it should. But we cannot merely tell information, rather we craft situations that allow the information to be naturally woven in and experienced by the audience in context. An opening scene that hooks and informs is a rock solid start to a story that works. 

Anne: I just want to reiterate the primary lesson I learned from this story: that my subjective reaction to it almost stopped me from seeing some very basic, and very solid story principles at work. One of the dangers of studying and applying Story Grid methods is that it can make you see flaws in stories you absolutely love, and make you see value in ones you absolutely hate. The disenchanting of any particular story is sometimes just the price we have to pay to get really good at analyzing, understanding, and writing them for ourselves.

(Though I hope that deep study and analysis to get really good at story never has to involve violence or abuse!)

Valerie: For stories that have some kind of psychological element, shapeshifters are key. Even for stories that don’t the antagonist is key because it’s the villain that enables the hero to be heroic. And remember, villains are the heroes of their own stories.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Elissa on voicemail. Here’s the question:

About the Performance genre. The core emotion is “triumph” but one of the conventions is a paradoxical win but lose, lose but win ending. The protagonist gains something but loses something, there’s a clear sacrifice for the win, or a need is met in light of the loss. I’m having trouble reconciling these two ideas. When I think of the core emotion of triumph, I think of a clear win-win ending, and the idea of having a win-but-lose ending with a core emotion of triumph has me a bit stuck.

Leslie: This is a great question, Elissa. Thank you! Looking at this helped me refine my thinking on this point. 

As Shawn says, the Performance story “concerns a life changing pressure cooker moment when we must perform on demand and either attain respect or live in ignominious shame.” 

As you mention, the core emotion is Triumph. Merriam-Webster tells us that triumph is “a state of joy or exultation for success.” And that appears to contradict the idea of a win-but-lose or lose-but-win resolution. So let’s get more specific. 

Another way to talk about performance stories is to say they are about how we make sacrifices to attain one or more levels of respect, esteem, or what I’m calling positive regard.

There are three levels to positive regard: what we hold for ourselves, what we receive from the important people in our lives (parents, kids, peers, mentors), and what we receive from everyone else. (Notice that these sources of positive regard reflect levels of conflict: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal.) 

A performance protagonist pursues mastery in their art or profession for positive regard, but they can’t have it all. The actions we take to gain positive regard for one level won’t necessarily gain us positive regard at another level. It’s similar to the way you can get a product or service that is good, cheap, or fast, and you might meet two of those constraints, but you’re never guaranteed all three. 

So, the protagonist has to be willing to give up at least one of the sources of positive regard—they might get it back, but they have to be willing to sacrifice it. In Whiplash, as Valerie explained beautifully earlier, Andrew is focused on that second level of positive regard as the path to achieve the third level—if he gains the approval of Fletcher, then he’ll be on his way to Lincoln Center. His pursuit of mastery isn’t about pleasing himself or expressing his gift unconditionally. It’s about expressing his gift to achieve positive regard from his mentor and future fans. He wants to become a legend. In order to be extraordinary and express his gifts unconditionally, he has to let go of this—or at least be willing to. Andrew chooses to embarrass his mentor publicly to regain his positive self-regard. And ironically, he gains the grudging respect of his mentor. 

The source of the feeling of triumph, in my mind, comes from Andrew’s willingness to stop trying to gain positive regard from his mentor. He’s able to achieve the double swing and that incredible performance because he lets go of his need for Fletcher’s approval. And that ironically, is what earns it.

If you have a question about any story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, click here and leave a voice message.

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

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 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.