The Irreconcilable Goods Crisis

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Now the Yang to the Best Bad Choice Yin is choosing between Irreconcilable Goods.

Making a choice between two “good” things sounds pretty great right?  No matter what you pick, a positive will come to the world.  But don’t Stories require conflict? How can a choice between two good things, not just drive a Story forward but actually create a catharsis?

The key word, of course, is “irreconcilable.” Choosing one good precludes the other.  What’s good for someone else is a different kind of good for you and what’s good for you is a different kind of good for someone else.

But any good is just as good as another good, right?

No, it isn’t.

One of my favorite movies, Kramer vs. Kramer, starts with a double “best bad choice” scenario but then is all about irreconcilable goods.

Wife Kramer (an impossible part played brilliantly by Meryl Streep) is at a crisis point with Husband Kramer (played by Dustin Hoffman). Only problem is that they have a four-year old little boy.

Is staying with her husband—a narcissist of the highest order who cares little for her and barely registers the existence of their son—until her boy is grown worse than denying her inner self? Wife Kramer thinks staying is worse. She’s gotta go. That’s best bad choice number one.

Now should she take the little boy with her? She’s an emotional wreck and has no idea of what she’s going to do with her life or how. So wouldn’t it be better to leave the boy with the father until she gets squared away? Wife Kramer thinks leaving the boy is the best bad choice. That’s best bad choice number two.

This movie is so brilliantly written that everything I’ve just described happens in the first sixty seconds…

Now left to care for the little guy after his hysterical wife flies the coop, Hoffman’s character has to make a series of irreconcilably good choices.

He can hire a full time nanny and stay on his career track as an up and coming advertising exec. Or he can take the kid to school, pick him up, make his dinner, clean up after him, discipline him, read him stories, and answer endless ridiculous and often impossible questions from his maddening four-year old point of view.

Hiring a third party caregiver would be good for Kramer personally and it would be good for his kid too. All of his hard work making something of himself will most likely lead to professional recognition, more money, etc.  And because of the money etc. his son will have privileges and opportunities in life that the older Kramer didn’t have when he was a boy.

He’ll be a great role model for his son…hard work pays off, stay focused!

But does his son really need that kind of role model when he’s four years old?

Doesn’t he just want his mom and dad there when he bangs his head on the coffee table?

So the other good choice would be to put the brakes on his career, take a lesser paying job, and make it to every school play. He’ll teach his son how to draw just like his old man does for a living. He’ll get angry at his son for bullying the next door neighbor and then he’ll stand behind his boy when he knocks on the door to apologize…

That would be a good choice too, right?

His son would learn that money and titles aren’t really that important if it means that a man can’t eat dinner with his family. Having someone to cry with about losing his mommy (or wife) trumps a key to the executive washroom.

Of this stuff are “irreconcilable goods” conflicts made. I saw this movie before I became a man, as I’m sure a lot of men my generation did too. Go to any playground today. Guess what you’ll see. A bunch of dads with their kids. Stories change people.

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About the Author

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the '70s and the Fight For America's Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon's Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.
Story Grid 101: The Five First Principles of the Story Grid Methodology
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What are the first principles in writing a story that works? At Story Grid, it’s easy to get distracted by the tools, spreadsheets, commandments, macro lense, micro lense, and on... Read more »
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Debbie L. Kasman says:

Really powerful post Shawn, especially the last paragraph! Thanks again for nailing something so elusive (at least to me) so brilliantly!

Mary Doyle says:

These examples are really, really helpful – lots to think about in terms of my own WIP. If I’m processing this accurately, the irreconcilable goods crisis must be a sacrifice great enough to elevate a narcissistic guy like Kramer to hero status, right? By extension, would Joanna’s decision at the end of the movie to let her son stay with Kramer despite having prevailed in the custody battle also be an irreconcilable goods crisis? It’s a painful choice on the surface, but she knows she is doing the best thing for her son and that he will surely come to appreciate this sacrifice when he is older. As always, thanks!

Shawn Coyne says:

You got it Mary. That is spot on for the Joanna character too. And that was a piece de resistance surprise at the end…when she makes that beautiful decision. Talk about a false ending! Tearing up now just thinking about it.

DC Harrell says:

Hadn’t thought about this twist in this context. Brilliant. Thanks for pointing it out.

Joel D Canfield says:

Side benefit to all this marvelous learning: I’m revisiting cinema and reading I avoided years ago for all the wrong reasons.

Doug Walsh says:

Same here! My “books to read” file now has a “movies to read” companion.

Kent Faver says:

I don’t know if it would represent an Irreconcilable Goods crisis, but I watched All the President’s Men this week for the first time in 25 years and I found Alan J. Pakula’s work to be almost unreal it was so good. I can’t imagine anyone taking Watergate and making it so dramatic. I was on the edge of my seat the last hour – and I knew the ending – literally and otherwise.

Mary Doyle says:

I’m with you on this Kent – I watched it again too – it’s still an electrifying film!

Robin Thomas says:

Hi Shawn. Following your amazing teachings these last weeks has been so inspirational and eye-opening to me. I’ve been watching movies and tv and reading with a completely different perspective.

For Science Fiction lovers, Battle Circle book 1 – Sos the Rope – by Piers Anthony is chock-full of the best bad choice and irreconcilable good choices. I first read it as a teenager but the story always stayed with me and is partly why I love sci-fi now. Re-reading it recently with the insights your work has provided I now realise why it affected me the way it did.

Loving the journey with you and the regular commenters. Looking forward to the Ides of March!

Nichelle Rae says:

I like the thought process. It makes me look back at the movie in a new way. Thanks!

Jim Schaffer says:

I just want to say THANK YOU for being so generous. I just listened your podcast with Joanna Penn, came here, scanned, and, well — all of this is priceless. I’ll be following your sharing here and elsewhere. Thank you.

Michael Beverly says:

He did a podcast with her? Can you post a link? NM:

I was about to correct you and say, no that was with Pressfield, because I am a religious follower of Joanna’s podcast, and I knew I’d have heard it, but it was Yesterday, and you know, national holiday and all here in the states….

Being from the UK, she probably didn’t realize that.

Doug Walsh says:

I started doing two things last week that, at first blush, I didn’t think were related: 1) I started working through The Story Grid blog. 2) I started watching House of Cards on Netflix.

House of Cards is fantastic, as I suspect any person with a pulse would attest to, but I just know that I’m getting so much more out of it after having read though (studied, and taken notes from as well) these Story Grid posts.

I just finished Season 1 last night and, well, here I am on the 3rd Commandment. And I feel like I’m getting a master class in Storytelling: Shawn’s blog is the lecture. House of Cards is the lab demonstration.

Tina Goodman says:

Was there an irreconcilable goods crisis in Casablanca? Rick has to choose between being with the woman he loves and helping the woman escape with her husband.

Tina Goodman says:

Oh, never mind. I see Rick and Casablanca are covered in the next post.


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