Editor Roundtable: It’s a Wonderful Life

 

This week, Leslie pitched It’s a Wonderful Life, in order to study POV and Narrative Device. This 1946 film was directed by Frank Capra, and written by Francis Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Frank Capra, based on the short story “The Greatest Gift,” originally published as a Christmas card in 1943 by Philip Van Doren Stern.

 

It’s a Wonderful Life is a Worldview-Education story with a love story subplot. Like many Worldview-Education stories, we have elements of George’s working life to go with the love story, but this doesn’t amount to a Performance (Professional) subplot. For more on Worldview-Education stories, check out the discussion in our Passengers episode. Here’s a quick breakdown of the beginning hook, middle build, and ending payoff. 

  • Beginning Hook – George is about to throw his life away, and the angel Clarence must learn about his life to help save him. George Bailey saves Harry’s life and Mr. Gower from damnation, but when George’s father dies and Potter will close the Building and Loan unless George agrees to take over, he must decide whether to forego college to save the institution or leave. He decides to stay and sends his brother, Harry, to college in his place.
  • Middle Build – After college, Harry returns with a wife and a job, so George remains in Bedford Falls at the Building and Loan, and soon he and Mary tie the knot, but when Billy loses $8000 for a bank deposit, and Potter refuses to help him, George must decide whether he can best help his family by living or dying. He is about to take his own life, but is interrupted by Clarence.  
  • Ending Payoff – George dive in the water to save Clarence, who grants George’s wish to have never been born, but when he sees that everyone he cares about is worse off without him, especially Mary who never marries, he must decide whether to ask for his life back or go on living without responsibilities. He makes the request, and his life is restored. He runs home to find that everyone in town has contributed to help him out of the jam.
  • This is an example when the film version of the story is much better than the prose version. Anne is going to talk about this in a few minutes, but in a nutshell, the short story consists of a stripped down version of the end of the middle build and ending payoff. George wishes he had never lived, a stranger grants the wish and shows George what life in his hometown would have been like without him, and George calls for a do-over because he wants his life back. 

Additional comments from others:

Valerie: There’s an argument to be made for Revelation too. The information George is missing (that he gets at the end) is that the people he has been helping all these years are willing to help him too. That’s obvious to Mary, which is why she’s able to get Ernie and Bert to help with the honeymoon, and ultimately get the whole town to help raise the $8,000 (and then some).

Kim: I kept seeing Status for George. He definitely has inborn Admiration qualities and follows his own moral compass. But I was thinking Status-Sentimental because he is so highly dependent on others in order to be successful. It’s one of those cases where if I were completing Friedman’s Framework, more than one of the internal elements would change so we have to step back and say, what’s the story really about? And I think Leslie’s conclusion of Worldview-Education is the Big Meta Why.

Anne: I kept trying to shoehorn it into Status Admiration, but that went out the window when George loses it and is mean to his own kids.

In my shoot-from-the-hip way, I figure the Worldview Education story is the one that ends when the protagonist can sing the refrain from that Chicago song “I’ve Been Searching So Long” that goes “Now I know my life has meaning (whoa-oh).”

Leslie: If you saw a different global genre here, you’re not alone. Considering which elements led you to your conclusion will help you understand genre better.

The Principle – Leslie – POV and Narrative Device

This season I’m looking at POV and narrative device, the subject of the third of the Editor’s Six Core Questions. If genre is what your story is about, POV and narrative device are how you deliver the story to your reader. While POV tells you whether your story is  first person, third person, for example, and whether it’s written in past or present tense, the narrative device or situation tells you who is telling the story, to whom, when and where, in what form, and why. 

So while you are the writer, and you write the story for your reader, there should be a fictional narrator or narrating entity that is delivering your story to a fictional audience, whether you reveal this to the reader or not. I go into the reasons for doing this in my Bite Size episode from a few weeks ago, but the main reason is that a specific narrative situation  makes your life easier because you know who is delivering the story to whom, under what circumstances, and why. 

The episode can be found here, and the article on narrative device is here, and the article on POV here

I recently made the connection between narrative device and the controlling idea of the story. Being thoughtful about this connection helps you write and revise your story so that the way you present your story aligns with what it’s about. The controlling idea of the story is usually the lesson the narrator wants to convey or the lesson the narrator learns as a result of reviewing the events of the story. 

What’s the narrative experience? What do we actually observe in the film when it comes to how the story is told? In the opening scene, we hear prayers for George Bailey from his friends and family. Then we see a conversation between glowing stars that represent celestial beings discussing how to help George. Clarence, an angel who hasn’t earned his wings, is tasked with the job of helping George, and we learn the boss has an hour to acquaint Clarence with the relevant details for the job. We see this through a series of flashbacks of key events from the distant and recent past. We hear the occasional voiceover that helps us understand what the events mean. Once Clarence has been briefed, we watch as he interferes with George’s plan on the bridge, and we follow the two of them after Clarence grants George’s wish to never have been born. Clarence disappears once he helps George reconnect with meaning in his life, and we follow George as he is embraced and supported by the community.   

What’s the narrative device or situation? Based on the narrative experience, what can we tell about the choice of narrative device or situation? In other words, how do Frank Capra and the other writers deliver the story? I see two narrative situations combined in one story. The first is Joseph telling George’s story to Clarence to brief him for his mission. Joseph wants Clarence to be successful in saving George, which saves a lot of other people. It takes the form of an angelic movie reel that shows key events from George’s life. This narrative is told from outside of George’s story (Joseph isn’t directly involved) and in the story’s present; this narrative begins one hour before George considers taking his life and starts with events from the distant past. 

The second narrative situation consists of Clarence using what Joseph told him to help George see that his life is worth living, and also so Clarence can become a full-fledged angel. The form feels experiential (like virtual reality) and conversation.

These two layers of narrative complexity help us hope that Clarence will be successful, even when George is not as sympathetic, for example when he yells at Janie and at Zuzu’s teacher and when he drowns his sorrows at Martini’s bar. Clarence’s story provides bridging or scaffolding sympathy. 

What’s the basic structure? The film employs a fate structure (see Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s book, Story Structure Architect for more on this and other master structures), which gives us a hint about the middle build crisis: we know a lot of people care about George Bailey and that he’s in trouble. Then the story is presented linearly with critical events from George’s upbringing presented through flashback (saving Harry, seeing how Potter treats his dad, saving Mr. Gower) and the events that are the proximate cause of George’s low moment at the bridge (Uncle Billy losing the money and George’s attempts to solve the problem). Once George encounters Clarence, the story continues in the present. 

What’s the primary form of Narrative Drive? Dramatic irony provides the primary narrative drive until George encounters Clarence on the bridge. This means sympathy is vital to this story.

What’s the controlling idea/theme of the story? 

The theme generally stated is probably what Clarence writes in the copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that he gives to George in the final scene of the story: “No one is a failure who has friends.” But in Story Grid terms, the controlling idea is usually phrased as a statement of the cause of the change that occurs for the protagonist. Written this way with a Worldview-Education story in mind, we might say

We find meaning when we remember that relationships are more important than financial success.

The point of the film seems to be that it’s not always easy to remember what truly matters and where we find the most meaning in life. Hard situations can distract us. So we need friends, family, and perhaps a little divine intervention to help us remember. The story and the narrative device work on multiple levels. It reminds the George Baileys of the world that life has meaning, even when things get tough. The advice seems to be: Look to the important people in your life and find meaning in the beneficial sacrifices you make there. But this story also reminds the family and friends of the George Baileys that we all need a little help sometimes. 

I’m finding more and more support for my hypothesis that the narrative device and POV choices should be as unique and specific as your controlling idea, and the two are deeply connected. 

The film is based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s short story, and it’s interesting to look at how the POV and narrative device are similar and different. 

What’s the POV and Narrative Device of the Short Story?

The POV of “The Greatest Gift” is selective omniscient: We have access to George’s experience and thoughts, but not to that of other characters. The narrative device has a generic god-like quality to it, and it’s covert (meaning the narrator isn’t revealed to us). The story is linear, and though there are references to the past, we don’t have any full-fledged scenes in flashback. 

George doesn’t come off as sympathetic in the short story. We don’t know exactly why he contemplates suicide, and he’s judgmental about what he thinks is the stranger’s profession. We never attach to him, so narrative drive is limited to wanting to see how it turns out. 

The filmmaker’s decision to allow us to get to know George as a likeable person, whom others care about and who sacrifices his wants for the needs of others makes a huge difference in how we feel about him, and this has an impact on narrative drive: we care about George in the film and want to see that he gets out of his terrible situation.

The controlling idea in the short story is either the same or similar—George finds meaning in his existing circumstances thanks to the intervention of the stranger—but the execution of the short story doesn’t deliver the emotional impact of the film. I can get choked up just thinking about some of the scenes in the film, but the story fell flat for me. POV and narrative device is a huge part of the difference. 

So we have the same basic situation, the same core event, and the same controlling idea, but the difference in narrative device makes the difference between a story that endures and sits near the top of the best films of all time and a short story that has largely been forgotten.

Anne – The importance of objects of desire

In the only writing course I ever took that was dedicated to film, the professor introduced It’s a Wonderful Life as the closest thing to perfection in a screenplay. It was ages ago, long before Story Grid, and I don’t remember why he thought it was perfect, but it had something to do with setups and payoffs, which this film handles extremely well.

I’m not comfortable proclaiming perfection in anything. There’s a lot of opinion involved, and in a story already 75 years old there are going to be some problematic elements that steal a few points from the plus column. 

But It’s a Wonderful Life is a rare instance of the film being way, way better than the story it’s based on. Frank Capra and his team of screenwriters took the bare essence of a short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern, and poured life into it. 

I thought it would be interesting to figure out how they did that. What can I as a writer of stories learn from the conversion of a nothing little short story into a beloved film classic that at least one professor thinks is “perfect”?

There are so many answers to that question that I can only scratch the surface here, so I’m going to focus on Objects of Desire.

Leslie touched on this: one of the short story’s many failings is that George Bailey has no apparent wants or needs. He shouts at the little man—who becomes Clarence the guardian angel in the film—that he’s sick of everything, stuck in a mudhole for life, bored in his work at a bank. He implies that he wants an exciting life. That’s it. 

Without more specificity, he’s just complaining. When he says he wishes he’d never been born, he sounds like he’s merely whining. There’s no force behind it. We gather that he’s considering suicide, but we have absolutely no idea why, other than that he’s bored with his life. It just seems petulant and selfish. 

We also have no idea what the little man wants or even who he is. He is a nameless dispenser of miracles from some larger entity (The World Cleaning Company)—we can surmise that he’s some kind of angel, but angels make terrible characters if they’re just holy and saintly without wants or needs. He’s a cipher.

As to Mary, she barely appears. In the alternate world where George Bailey was never born, she’s married to an abusive drunk, and we gather that she just wants to keep the peace in her house. But she, too, is just a cipher. A housewife with no character traits. The story even uses the word “indifferent” to describe her attitude.

There is no particular force of antagonism in the short story, either. A Marty Jenkins is mentioned as a bad guy who embezzled a large sum from the bank where George worked, and the bank closure took the whole town down with it, but Marty Jenkins is just a name on the page, and never appears. Marty had a brother who is now the drunk married to Mary, but he has no agency in the story either, except as the last straw that makes George recant his wish about never having been born.

The first thing the screenplay did right was to establish objects of desire. Very, very clear objects of desire. 

Clarence is established as a bit of a loser in the angel business. He wants to get his wings, and to get them he needs to succeed in helping George Bailey at the most critical moment of his life. Absolutely crystal clear, stated right in the opening scene. We are rooting for Clarence before we even see him, because his desire to be promoted and recognized is so relatable, and his need to earn his wings by good deeds sets up a kind of mini Performance story. We want to see him succeed.

Then we launch into George Bailey’s younger life and quickly learn what he wants: like his short-story counterpart, he craves excitement, but the screenwriters wisely get specific: George wants to travel the world as an explorer. He’s been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society. He knows about faraway places like Fiji. He talks about his dream to everyone. The first thing we see of him as a grown man, he’s buying a big suitcase, with plenty of room for labels from Italy, and Baghdad, and Samarkand, where he plans to travel during the summer before he starts college.

The movie admittedly layers it on pretty thick in the beginning hook. George’s plan is that when he’s done with his travels and his college degree—presumably in architecture—he wants to design new buildings and plan modern cities. He wants to expand his horizons and become a millionaire. His visions are too big for Bedford Falls and way too big for a job in his father’s nickel-and-dime building and loan. His father foreshadows what George really needs: to acknowledge that his work at the building and loan is important.

Mary, too, has clearly defined objects of desire. When we meet her as a young girl, she declares that she’s going to love George Bailey till the day she dies. A little later, as a young woman, she discloses her desire to live in the big old abandoned house. She wants romance, but also security. She’s not ambitious; she’s steadfast. We see early on, in the scene after the wild graduation dance, where she and George are walking home in borrowed clothes from the gym locker room, that she’ll need that steadfastness to deal with George’s impetuousness.

Another fatal flaw in the short story is that it lacks a force of antagonism. The film, by contrast, transforms the slight mention of a Mr Potter into Henry Potter, the 6th most villainous villain in a hundred years of film, as voted by the American Film Institute in 2003. 

Valerie’s going to talk about the more subtle and genre-specific force of antagonism in the film, but I can’t ignore Potter here. His wants are also crystal clear:  he wants to own the whole town. His greedy and malicious actions constantly push George to change. He has no internal genre and therefore no subconscious needs.

What drives Potter? It’s stated outright by George’s father in an excellent use of a meal scene: “He’s a sick man, frustrated in his mind. Sick in his soul if he has one. He hates everybody that has anything he can’t have. Hates us, mostly, I guess.”

Now, Henry Potter is not a subtle villain. He’s out and out irredeemably bad, like the Wicked Witch of the West. But unlike the Wicked Witch, he never really gets his comeuppance, except to witness in the end the real wealth that George Bailey has in family, friends, and supporters. Sure, it’s kind of a “Curses! Foiled again!” moment, but Potter is absolutely true to his character from beginning to end, and he is the instrument of just about every hardship in George’s life.

Why is it important for us as storytellers to establish the wants and needs of the principal characters? First and foremost, so that there’s something driving them. Motivating them. The desire is what carries the protagonist across the threshold from the ordinary world into the adventure. 

The wants and needs are closely related to the global genre. In a Worldview story like this, the protagonist often has to give up their want altogether—sacrifice it—and learn to accept the need instead. It’s the root of that bittersweet win-but-lose ending that all the internal genres depend on. 

I have more about the relationship between genre and objects of desire in my Bite Sized Episode, Objects of Desire.

The objects of desire also help establish what’s at stake. The screenwriters of It’s a Wonderful Life clearly understood that if you want to raise the stakes and create empathy for a flawed character, give that character a strong desire, and then put it out of that character’s reach. Take it away from them, force them to give it up, and see what happens.

Before the middle build, George Bailey has already begun sacrificing what he wants, because circumstances channel him into doing what he needs to do. The death of his father forces him to give up his travels and his college education. 

Each stroke of bad luck that follows does two things: first it forces him to make another sacrifice that will pay off beautifully in the closing scenes; and second, it helps us understand why George reaches the global crisis of considering whether to take his own life, which is where the story began. We have been clearly shown, step by step, why George has come to be standing on that bridge, considering jumping.

There is so much to say about how Frank Capra and his team of writers converted this wan little short story into one of the most enduring American movies of all time, and I don’t have time here to go into all of them. 

But what I can say is this: if you’re interested in leveling up your story craft, do a side-by-side comparison of “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern—it’s only about 4000 words—and Capra’s great film, going down the list of the Editor’s Six Core Questions. I guarantee the analysis will return huge treasures.

Kim– Crafting Beginnings

Stories are about change. So in order to craft a story, we need to understand how to craft change. This means we need to show a change has taken place. The way to show change is having a clear before and after. 

The idea of change itself insists on a before, during, after (aka beginning, middle, and end). The “during” is the moment of change — a turning point, phere (ball of chaos!).

This principle of change applies to any unit or story: Global to act to scene to beat. 

What is a beginning? What do beginnings do? 

  • What does Shawn say? From a global story perspective, Shawn specifically calls it the Beginning Hook. Meant to hook the reader and introduce the genre elements from each of the five leaves of genre’s clover. 
  • Reference to the first ever story structure book I read: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress. In it she says beginnings include: Character, Conflict, Specificity, and Credibility.
  • Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – Six Things that Need Fixing, Theme stated.

So we have the specific function of beginnings within the global story. And from there we have the components of a beginning and their specific functions within it. 

In order to create the change that occurs in a beginning, the initial life values are first established and then shifted.

Common pitfalls of beginnings: 

  • Not showing the before, just jumping to during and after. Change is most meaningful in context of how things used to be. Don’t negate the status quo. And don’t think that status quo means “boring.” It might be “boring” to the protagonist (because it’s normal), but it’s not the reader because they are learning it all for the first time. Pro tip — introduce status quo with specificity to create interest. 
  • No complications — Making the status quo boring / idyllic / where nothing happens. Status quo doesn’t mean that “nothing changes” it just means that the things that happen are not out of the ordinary. For example if the pipes burst for the fourth time this week, it’s chaos, but it’s still business as usual. The status quo includes the typical kinds of frustrations the protagonist is used to and/or something that can be resolved. It’s not the incident that prompts the problem / question of the story. 
  • Too much too soon — even when you do establish your status quo, beware of moving the story too far too fast. I’ll never forget that when Tim was working on The Threshing on the main podcast and had his protagonist Jessie use violence early on and Shawn said, no it doesn’t work. This doesn’t mean every story needs to be a slow burn, but it’s important to set up the before properly, so the reader is oriented with expectations that can be paid off. 

Anne: Thank you for that first point, Kim. I see a tendency particularly among new writers to shortchange the beginning and plunge directly into the action. This happens at the global story level, but I see it at the scene level all the time. The writer hesitates to set the scene, and opts instead for the in media res action opening. They almost invariably then have to backtrack and insert a paragraph of explanation about what the character HAD thought or HAD done just prior. 

So the problem exists at the global and the micro level, and it’s a thing to watch out for.

Kim: Let’s look at the beginning of It’s a Wonderful Life and see what it’s made of and how it functions. 

So which “Beginning” are we going to look at? The beginning of a global story is the BH. But I wanted to drill down a little more than that, so what is the beginning of the BH? You can slice and dice it how you want, but for my purposes I’m going to look at the scenes that come before the turning point of the BH. This fits with my before / during / after definitions, where the “during” is the TPPC. So anything before the TPPC of the BH is what I am going to be examining. I originally thought I would be looking at just up to the inciting incident of the BH, but it turns out going with the TPPC feels more useful today. 

There are several different tools we can use to evaluate the beginning of this story. Leslie gave us the five commandments in a paragraph in her overview of the story. So we know the act “works” in general, because it has a turning point that shifts the life values and forces a crisis decision. (This is equivalent to completing the Story Grid spreadsheet for your scenes, but in this case we’re measuring an act instead of a scene. You can evaluate any unit of story using the spreadsheet, though certain ones are likely more valuable than others. Same tool, different resolution.) 

So in my case, I want to zoom in a little closer. 

My process for this was to make a rough scene list — the full spreadsheet, just the story events — and then note what the audience literally learns in each moment, what this means in context of the story, and then what this means in a more abstract/generalized way. 

Let me show you what I mean. 

In the beginning hook, we have four sequences, each within a specific time period. 

  • Sequence 1 – Present – people are praying for George Bailey, conversation by the angels. 
  • Sequence 2 – Past – when George was 12
  • Sequence 3 – Past – when George was preparing to go to college
  • Sequence 4 – Past – three months after George’s father’s death. 

Each sequence is accomplishing a specific task. 

Sequence 1 – Opens the story

  • Introduces the framing device
    • Story being told/shown by one angel to another
  • Introduces setting: location, time of year
    • “You are now in Bedford Falls”
    • Snowing
    • Christmas Eve
  • Introduces characters
    • George Bailey
    • People in town, friends, his mother
    • He has a wife and children
    • Three angels, one is a screw up
  • Introduces the stakes (life values)
    • Everyone is praying for George Bailey
    • “Worse he’s discouraged. At exactly 10:45pm he’ll be considering throwing away God’s greatest gift” 
    • His life is on the line and there is only an hour left. 
  • Introduces means of turning the plot
    • He is planning to kill himself, but help is on the way

Sequence 2 – Starts the journey of how George ended up where he is now (contemplating suicide)

  • Introduces George’s character
    • He’s the kind of person who jumps in freezing water to save his brother
  • Introduces means of turning the plot
    • The nasty antagonist in town, Mr. Potter
    • Mary’s feelings for George
    • Building & Loan
    • Uncle Billy is forgetful
    • George’s dad is a man of integrity, Potter is not
  • Introduces George’s wants
    • George’s ambitions to travel and explore
  • Reinforces George’s character 2x
    • George is the kind of person who stands up for his father and speaks his mind
    • kind of person George is — honest, compassionate, always does the right thing – the way he handles Mr. Gower’s mistake

Sequence 3 – Significant events that led to George’s current situation … establish the course that George’s life was on and how it got rerouted

  • Reinforces George’s character
    • that George is still his adventurous exploring self, just like he always wanted to be
    • that he’s a town favorite and gets along great with people
  • Reinforces George’s want
    • to travel / explore, shows us his sacrifice/effort he’s been willing to make to go after what he wants
    • George has worked and saved his money to go to college but also to take a trip to Europe first
  • Clearly states George’s belief about what constitutes a meaningful life and the life he wants to have
    • Conversation with his father at the table, the way George feels about this town / the B&L / the life he wants

Insert Clip: George’s conversation with his father at dinner. Dad asks him about his plans after college and if he would consider coming back to work at the B&L. George says that he: “I couldn’t be cooped up, I want to do something big and important. I wish I felt it, but I don’t.”

  • Means of turning the plot
    • that Potter is still a force of antagonism and has a strong hold on the town / his father’s words
    • that George’s father seems worn out
    • that George and Mary have a powerful connection – progressive complication via tool? (The high highs of the evening sets up a strong contrast for the blow that is about to come …)
    • The specific event that takes George’s life off course – his father’s stroke / death — the TPPC of the BH 

Sequence 4 – The aftermath of this major event, George’s crisis, decision, and action

By taking the time to clearly establish George’s character and his wants, everything about the story events becomes more meaningful (aka we understand what it means). We get it! It’s a big deal for George to finally be going on his trip and then to college. He’s worked his ass off to make it happen. And we are happy for him, because he’s a great guy. He deserves to go out and live his life fully now. 

And so this makes the moment of change (the revelatory TPPC when George learns his father had a stroke) that much more devastating. He’s missed his trip. BUT he’s on his way to college now! Yay! Until Potter starts talking crap about his dad. Again. Nope, not on my watch. And George Bailey proceeds to give the most epic rant. 

When George learns the board will only vote to keep B&L open if he takes his father’s place, this is also a revelatory TPPC, I’m just not entirely sure what unit of story. It’s as if the two scenes – dad’s stroke plus ultimatum by the board, are a double-whammy. It’s a progressively complicated level of irreversibility. And because the story has set up George’s character and wants so clearly, we can’t help but be gut-wrenched and conflicted right along with him.

Valerie – Forces of Antagonism 

This season I’m studying Forces of Antagonism; in other words, who or what is pushing against the protagonist, forcing him to act and forcing him to change? Sometimes, the answer is pretty obvious because the Force of Antagonism is an external Villain, but that’s not always the case. If you do a Google search on great villains in literature, or in film, you’ll discover that just like everything else in this industry, there is no one agreed-upon definition or categorization for Forces of Antagonism.

Personally, I like Steven Pressfield’s approach because it was in reading the posts over on his Writings Wednesdays blog, that I was finally able to get a handle on this archetype. Christopher Vogler calls it the Shadow and I’m sure there are other story theorists with different names. But, for the purposes of my study, I’m following Steve’s approach. I started my study a couple of years ago with a Fundamental Fridays blog post called Stories Need Great Villains. My two main takeaways from that project were:

  • The Hero, Victim and Villain roles are intertwined. It’s very difficult to talk about one without reference to the others.
  • This is a massive topic that deserves its own book. I do plan on writing that book and my research for it is starting right here. I won’t have time here on the podcast to pass along everything I’m learning, so to get the other information go to my website and sign up to the inner circle

Ok, so Forces of Antagonism fall into three main categories:

External: As Steve explains, external villains “present existential threats to our physical existence. These sonsofbitches will kill you, eat you, freeze you, boil you.” 

Societal: These are societal beliefs such as racism or in the case of Pride & Prejudice, the class system.

Internal: When the Force of Antagonism is internal, the protagonist is his own worst enemy. His beliefs, behaviour and attitude is what’s keeping him from getting his object of desire. You’ve heard the saying I’ve seen the enemy and he is me? Well, that epitomizes the internal Force of Antagonism.

In It’s a Wonderful Life, what is the Force of Antagonism? Well, as in most stories, there are a couple; a main villain and lesser villains.

Everything goes back to genre. Since this is a global internal genre story, it will come as no surprise to hear that the main villain is also internal. George is his own worst enemy; his beliefs and his perspective on the world are what’s keeping him from seeing how wonderful his life is. He’s doing what he believes is the honourable thing (staying to help the people of Bedford Falls), and he does recognize that he (through the Building and Loan) is helping to improve the lives of the people around him. However, he also sees what he’s giving up (his dreams of travel, higher education, architecture and financial wealth). He sees the struggle and the strife and in the end, it overwhelms him. In the end, he is only able to see the problems. He can’t see that with Bailey Park he has actually fulfilled his dream of “doing something big; something important.” 

Mr. Potter is an obvious external villain—Anne just went over this—and while he’s pivotal to the story, since this is a global internal story he’s a bit lower in the Force of Antagonism hierarchy than George’s internal struggles. After all, Potter isn’t the one who tells George to kill himself. He does provide the circumstances for George’s desperation, and he does make that offhand comment about the insurance policy, but he’s not suggesting George commit suicide. He wants to put the Building and Loan out of business. He doesn’t want to kill George.

If you want to write a global internal genre story, this is something you need to really understand. Although the main Force of Antagonism is within the protagonist, you still need something or someone in the external environment to poke that internal element. 

I’d argue that there is also a societal Force of Antagonism here too. For the most part, George’s family and friends are encouraging him to go and explore the world and fulfill his dreams. However, his father’s request that he work at the family business plants a seed in his mind, and once that seed is planted, it doesn’t really matter that his father backs off. The comment is a set up to a pay off (and the real societal Force of Antagonism) that happens toward the end of the beginning hook. The Building and Loan Board of Directors agree not to sell the company to Potter but only if George stays on to run it.  

To understand how the writers pulled this off, let’s look at the 3-Act structure. Leslie has already articulated the Beginning Hook, Middle Build and Ending Payoff for It’s A Wonderful Life, so I won’t repeat it here but keep that breakdown in mind.

The Beginning Hook is essentially one big set up for the Ending Payoff. As Kim just explained, in it we understand what kind of person George is and what kind of world he lives in. His belief that community needs trump personal needs influences every decision he makes. It’s no surprise then when he decides to stay at the Building and Loan rather than go to college. You may have heard Shawn say that the Beginning Hook and the Ending Payoff rhyme and that’s the case in this film. Because of George’s belief that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, he sacrifices his own safety in both the first and third acts to save someone else. Both times he jumps into icy water; he saves his brother initially and then a stranger (Clarence).

This same belief is what causes him to consider suicide. Potter (the external villain) feeds the belief and turns it against him. When he tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive, George once again decides to sacrifice himself for the good of the community, but here the belief is twisted and distorted. 

You may also have heard Shawn say that the Middle Build belongs to the Antagonist. So what does the Middle Build of It’s a Wonderful Life look like? Essentially there are a series of events (antagonistic forces) that raise the stakes, that test and erode George’s belief until it finally becomes the thing that will destroy him. Here are the highlights:

  • When Harry returns from college with a wife and a job offer from another company, George puts his brother’s needs ahead of his own. The pressure is starting to build within him and the stakes begin to get higher. He’s already given up his chance to leave Bedford Falls once, now he has to do it again. This time, for good. 
  • When the bank calls the Bailey Brothers’ loan, George gives up his honeymoon (the trip and the cash) to save the company. 
  • Sam’s financial success is a painful reminder that George is not wealthy and that he turned down an opportunity to invest in the very plan that made Sam rich.
  • Fresh from the humiliation he felt around Sam, George receives an offer of ten times his annual salary from Potter. He’s tempted to accept (especially since the deal will enable him to travel), but once again, his puts others’ needs ahead of his own and decides to stay with the Building and Loan. 
  • Finally, when Uncle Billy loses the $8,000 deposit and George faces bankruptcy, he goes to Potter for help. Potter refuses telling George that he’s worth more dead than alive. This perverts George’s guiding belief and makes him think that the only way out of the situation is suicide. 

George’s object of desire is to achieve “something big; something important” and he’s defined that goal as leaving Bedford Falls, traveling and building grand things elsewhere. Everything conspires against him (his internal attitudes and beliefs, Mr. Potter, and society) to keep him from that goal. However, what he ultimately realizes is that he has done “something big; something important”. His perception of his situation changes and he realizes that he’s created a future for the people of Bedford Falls, he’s forged friendships, he has a loving family and all-in-all, it’s a pretty wonderful life.

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:  First takeaway: Periodically, I like to trot out a quote from John Gardner, and I’m paraphrasing here, that in contemporary writing you can do whatever you want with point of view, as long as it works. I think the key to making sure it works is to make a thoughtful choice about your narrative device and checking that it’s consistent with the story’s controlling idea. If you don’t want to reveal the narrative device to the reader, as is done in It’s a Wonderful Life, then don’t. But don’t use that as a reason not to spend time and effort on this critical choice. Second takeaway: An important part of making a thoughtful choice is studying the decisions that other writers make in their stories, especially when you can compare two similar stories. Final takeaway: Ideas are important, but an idea must be well executed to transmit the core ideas and emotions to another person. That takes time, effort, and study.

Anne: I’ll be hammering on this all season, but if you write novels or short stories, study novels and short stories, even where there’s also a film. There is so much to learn from analyzing a text. If you write screenplays, there’s still a lot to learn about what makes a good screenplay by analyzing a film along with the novel or story it was based on. Read, read, read.

Kim: In order to craft a beginning that works, you need to know the end, that is, the way you want the reader to feel when the story is over. And then understand that in order to create that change, there is a before, during, and after. This structure exists at every unit of story. Do not negate the before, in your beginning and in the beginning of your beginning. Establish the life values before the turning point takes place. 

Valerie: I’ll finish by repeating something I said earlier: Global internal genre stories, which have internal forces of antagonism, still need an external force of antagonism to highlight that internal element and drive the change in the story.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from Mark Lowes on Twitter. Mark writes:

I’ve literally burned through 94 episodes [of the flagship podcast] in less than a month. Quick question, I’m writing a story similar to The Martian in which someone must escape the Arctic. The environment is the villain. What’s the McGuffin there? Is there an episode on this?

Valerie: First of all, I can understand how compelling Shawn’s method is for you. It compels me too so I can absolutely relate to burning through as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible—and I genuinely applaud your commitment to learning more about the craft.

But here’s the thing: this information is pretty complex. It’s got layers upon layers, so consuming that much information that quickly means that you’ve missed a lot of valuable stuff. I’m in the process of listening to the flagship podcast episodes again, from the beginning, and I’m picking up things I either didn’t get the first time, or had forgotten.

Likewise, I continue to go through the Story Grid course material because, even though I’ve heard that material multiple times (I’ve done the Level Up Your Craft course about a half dozen times already), I’m still hearing new things.

Repetition is the key to learning. The Story Grid methodology doesn’t reward speed. It just doesn’t—there are so many concepts here to learn. What it does reward, is patient study and practice.

The macguffin is discussed on several episodes of the flagship podcast, we’ve talked about it here on this show a number of times and one of our colleagues, Larry Pass, wrote an entire Fundamental Fridays post about it. It’s called What’s A MacGuffin Anyway? A macguffin is what the antagonist wants. So, in The Martian, the villain is Mars and by extension, the environment on Mars. It wants Mark Watney’s life; it wants to keep him from surviving long enough to get home. The environment on Mars does not support human or plant life in any way, so its very nature throws up endless obstacles. I recommend that you go through the novel and the film and observe how the environment gets in the way of Watney achieving his object of desire (which is to survive).

 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.

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 (9)
Author Leslie Watts

9 Comments

Larry Pass says:

Great episode, guys.
I usually try to watch the movie you’re discussing ahead of tim, but I didn’t need to for this one; I’ve got it more or less memorized. I still choke up when Harry says, “To my big brother George, the richest m an in town.” Choking up a little just typing it.

For those who want to read “The Greatest Gift”, I found a PDF post of it here: http://www.actorsguild.org/uploads/3/1/8/5/31851113/the_greatest_gift.pdf
or a youtube pot of someone reading it here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-bsy2H47Qc&feature=emb_logo

(And thanks for plugging my Fundamental Fridays post, Valerie.)

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Valerie Francis says:

You’re welcome, Larry. It’s a good post with lots of valuable information! 🙂

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Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

Thanks for posting the original story, Larry! That’s a huge help in doing the comparative work that Anne talks about so eloquently.

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Su Kopil says:

Agree, great episode! Having seen the movie multiple times does help. It’s making me take a closer look at the internal forces of antagonism in my WIP. Thanks Larry for posting the link to the story. I was just searching for it.

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Valerie Francis says:

Oh that’s fabulous! I’m so glad you’re looking more closely at the internal forces of antagonism in your project. Well done!

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Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

Excellent episode, Roundtable! Kudos to getting me to watch a movie I’ve only ever seen parts of here and there but never could bring myself to watch. I’m not exactly a curmudgeon but I knew enough about the story to know that it involved the intervention of an angel and that was just a sentimental bridge too far for me. (No offense, to those of you who are people of faith but that, on the outside, was offputting to me.)

I’m so glad I watched the movie because it not only gives great food for thought in terms of the Story Grid principles you tackle so capably here but it’s just a great film that, however dated and hokey, still works wonders. And the device of the angel? Completely worked for me. It’s rather striking that a movie of this era can integrate faith in its narrative device but do so in a way that doesn’t require faith in general in order for it to work. The takeaway for me is that it takes what is essentially a Biblical-level parable as outlined in the original greeting card/short story, and elevates it to a LIVING parable that is especially potent in modern American life, a world that increasingly celebrates individualism, ambition and external success, often to the detriment of the type of personal success that relies exclusively on how we treat one another, as opposed to how we compare to one another.

A few random thoughts:

Having followed Leslie’s ongoing exploration of POV and narrative device, I thought this was the best example yet of illustrating the principles she is exploring. I am still somewhat squishy (said for your benefit, Kim) on the matter, in large part because the examples we’ve explored thus far have very obvious narrative devices (bookend angels plotting George’s rescue, Bridget Jones’ writing to herself in a diary, etc). I’m eager to see how these principles are explored in less obvious settings, say a third person multiple POV novel where the who of the storyteller and audience are, at best, implied).

I really enjoyed Valerie’s discussion on the forces of antagonism, and especially appreciate the link she makes between how the hero, antagonist and victim are all inextricably linked. I wasn’t surprised by Anne noting that Mr. Potter is considered one of the greatest movie villains of all time (I mean, it is a Barrymore, after all) but interestingly, this is one area of the film that doesn’t hold up as well for me. It’s an indication of the evolution of our story sensitivities that these days, just as we are inclined to want our heroes to be less than perfect, more three dimensional, relatable, I think we also expect our villains to be similarly complex and layered. I kept expecting to get a glimpse at least of Potter’s back story, the painful origin of his miserly curmudgeon nature, something that made me wonder if he would ever be redeemed. The moment when he discovers Billy’s lost $8,000, I actually wondered if he was considering doing the right thing but obviously, that was not in the cards for this movie. At the end, he kind of disappears as a villain. We never know what his response to George’s salvation is, or what happens with the $8,000. In my rewrite in my mind’s eye, I kind of wanted the camera to pull back from the final tableau of the George & Family, surrounded by his adoring friends and neighbors huddled around the Christmas tree celebrating the fact that that they are wealthy in that they have each other, to going out through the window, looking at the Bedford Falls wintery loveliness and then seeing Mr. Potter, perhaps through his window, all alone. Probalby too much, but I wanted his character to display some dimension at some point. My point being that Potter doesn’t seem like a perfect modern villain in that he’s too easily dismissed as simply 100% selfish.

How that relates to the global story is important in that, what George wants at the beginning of the story are essentially selfish desires. THere’s nothing wrong with his wish to have adventures and see the world, but we do see him miss out on how relatively idealic his life actually is. In fact, he’s got Mary ready to marry him at the age of 7 and he doesn’t even seem to notice what a catch is there waiting for him. External circumstances conspire to put her in his life permanently and, obviously, they make the most of it.

Similarly, I felt that Clarence’s story was given a bit of short shrift. He’s set up as being simple but a repeated failure. It seems a foregone conclusion that he will succeed in saving George but I guess I wanted to see him struggle with it more, to understand how he had to overcome his own shortcomings to finally succeed and get his wings. Isn’t it really as simple as he had to appreciate that his kind-heartedness was really enough? That he didn’t have to try so hard to be clever (just as George didn’t need to be so successful he could have a fancy car) in order to succeed? I don’t know but it seems there was room for just a note of change that could have underlined the central themes.

Another area of the film that felt not fully developed was the sudden shift in George going bad – yelling at his kids, scolding the school teacher, picking fights at a bar. It would’ve been more believable and had a greater payoff if we saw him stowing away little resentments all along for having done the dutifully selfless thing by helping his brother, sticking with the savings and loan, all at the cost of his personal selfish ambitions. Even just coming across the traveling chest and realizing it still has no exotic stickers – something to show that he’s paid a cost for these choices.

This matters to me, because the ending payoff is not simply that George finally comes around to appreciate how good he has it in life after all, but it’s an affirmation of his innate character. Little George didn’t think twice about saving his brother, and he paid a price when he lost his hearing in one ear. He naturally wanted to defend his father’s legacy by helping to save the savings and loan, and so on. He’s a good guy who doesn’t appreciate that these traits are what give his life so much wealth. It’s not enough that we should just appreciate life and count ourself lucky to have loved ones. The real lesson is deeper: We have loved ones that matter because we’ve invested in them all along.

Last thought: One of my favorite moments is near the end when George has convinced Clarence to have another chance. Two tiny details are key to his realization that his old life ain’t so bad after all. First, he realizes his lip is bleeding again and he’s exultant. Yay, I’ve got a bum lip! At least it means I have my old life back, warts and all! And the other is the discovery of Zuzu’s flower petals in his pocket immediately after. Such a tiny little thing but it confirms the love of simple things was never really gone. He’d just misplaced them.

Anyway, thanks again for another great episode. I love how your individual processes send me on my own explorations of the material and it makes the whole experience all the richer.

It’s a wonderful life, indeed.

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Leslie Watts says:

Thanks for your feedback and for contributing to the conversation, Drew!

You make a great point that to further illuminate POV and narrative device I need to look at examples that are less clear. I have a story coming up in January that looks at a third person omniscient example (Alice Munro’s “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” film version is Away from Her). I’ll continue in this direction in the future.

I’m so glad you shared your thoughts about ways the story could have gone deeper. A novel adaptation of the film could explore all of these avenues for an even richer experience. That’s a book I would love to read.

Thanks again for sharing your experience of the story and our episode, Drew!

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Drew Emery (@InlawsOutlaws) says:

That’s awesome, Leslie. I very much look forward to it. And to be clear, I am GLAD you started with obvious examples because it made the underlying examples clear from the get go.

Happy New Year, Roundtable!

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