(Just in time for November 2012! Wait... really? It’s almost January? I guess my holiday-themed article comparing Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” to The Terminator will have to wait until next year.)
Sideways, Alexander Payne's 2004 wine-country opus, and Academy Award-winner for Best Adapted Screenplay is treated by many as such a rare bird of cinematic storytelling. Oh, it is so different! It is so unconventional! Why, it seems to work with no real plot at all! Critics and naysayers of the teaching of screencraft then point to Sideways as proof that one does not need to learn rules and structure to create a great story. They seems to believe that by some bizarre happenstance this genetic mutant of storytelling happened to slip by the gatekeepers and create something different in every way.
What a load of crap. Sideways is as traditional as any other Hollywood film. It has the exact same structure and follows all the same rules. It has the plain old normal three acts with the same plain old major dramatic turning points doing what they do in every other well-written film. The only thing different about Sideways is its superficial details.
This becomes plain to see if one knows the right place to look. (However, experience has taught me that knowing where to look is an area of weakness for many dramatic critics.) Many people who write about this film seem unable to grasp what its story is really all about. First of all, Sideways is a Healing Narrative (Type #5 of my 20 Types of Story). It shares this story type with other well-known films such as The Sixth Sense, Goodwill Hunting, The 25th Hour, The Wrestler, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. (I know that last one will raise some eyebrows, so there is a special section dedicated to it at the end of this article.) Alexander Payne seems to have a penchant for this story type, since his previous film About Schmidt was also a Healing Narrative. In fact, Sideways and About Schmidt follow what is basically the same structure.
In a Healing Narrative:
The protagonist starts the story somehow wounded, and pursues an objective that will heal him or her, whether that healing be literal, figurative, or symbolic. Though the hero is met with external conflict on his or her journey, real moments of development occur when story events force the hero to overcome his or her resistance to healing, forcing the hero to get out of his or her comfort zone and into the unknown.
Sideways' protagonist Miles starts his story a wounded animal. Miles's divorce two years earlier left a gash in his spirit so deep that he has yet to recover from it. In response, Miles seems to have all but given up on the pursuit of happiness in his life. The only emotions he seems to feel anymore are depression, frustration, and irritability.
So, Miles needs to heal. This will be the focus of the story. But what specifically occurs in Sideways that causes this healing to occur? Answering this question will point out the film's Story Spine. Unfortunately, most who have taken it upon themselves to analyze the film have misanswered this question and end up mislabeling rather insignificant events as the story's major dramatic turning points.
First of all, we must find the story's inciting incident. The inciting incident is the event that establishes the Story Problem, sets up the Story Goal, launches the Main Conflict, and sets the path the rest of the story will follow. Most people looks at Sideways and declare its inciting incident to be the moment Miles and Jack leave LA on their trip to the wine country. This is wrong. Leaving for the wine country does not create any kind of Story Problem. Nor does it incite any sort of story conflict. How can an event become an inciting incident when it is something both characters want to happen? Everything at this point continues to go according to plan, making this moment nothing more than another part of the film’s setup sequence.
To find the inciting incident, just ask: what is the story really about? It is about Miles finding a reason to give a damn about his life again. And how does he do this? By getting over his divorce by forming a relationship with a new woman – specifically, the Maya character (Virginia Madsen). And wouldn't you know it? Sixteen minutes into the film, right at the point when all the screenwriting books say the inciting incident should occur, this idea is first introduced. Jack says he is sick of seeing Miles feel sorry for himself and promises to get Miles laid. This is the film's inciting incident. It sets up the course of action through which Miles's healing will occur. It also creates the story's main conflict. Miles does not want to get laid, and resists Jack's help. Typical to this story type, Miles resists the path to his own healing. Yet, Jack insists, setting into motion the Story Spine and getting the real story rolling.
Jack is a good example of an antagonistic comrade character. A comrade is a character who assists the protagonist in getting what he or she needs. However, in stories such as Healing Narratives, where the protagonist does not wish to pursue the objective he or she desperately needs, the protagonist needs assistance from the outside. Antagonistic comrades achieve this by creating a conflict that indirectly forces the protagonist to take action. The comrade acts like a foe to be a friend. Keep in mind though that while Jack often acts in an antagonistic manner towards Miles, he is not the film's antagonist. Jack does not stand in the way of Miles' goal the way an antagonist must. In fact, he wants Miles to reach his goal. The only character in Miles' way is Miles himself. Miles' refusal to grow and heal makes him his own antagonist – a trait found quite often in Healing Narratives. Jack's antagonistic behavior exists to provide a counter-force to Miles' self-antagonism, constantly pushing him forward in spite of his resistance.
True to traditional 3-Act form, Sideways ends its first act with a major dramatic turning point that forces Miles past a Point of No Return. True to his word, Jack arranges a date between Miles and Maya. Miles does not want to go on this date, but agrees because he cannot let his buddy down. Act 2A is made up entirely by this date. And, just like any other cinematic story, in Act 2A Miles' character flaws cause his actions – though well-intentioned – to make the situation worse. Miles drinks too much, drunk-dials his ex-wife, and fumbles with every opportunity he has to make progress with Maya.
As usual, Act 2A culminates with the arrival of a Monster Moment at the Mid 2nd-Act Turning Point. The Monster Moment is a complicating event that unexpectedly puts the protagonist into a situation that is far worse than the one that existed before. Miles, once again acting as his own worst enemy, blows what seems to be a sure thing with Maya. With this disappointment in his rearview, Miles now realizes how stupid it was to resist his own healing. He now wants to heal, but the opportunity seems to have passed him by. He is angry at himself and just might spend the rest of his life pathetic and alone.
After this point, Sideways becomes less of a cut-and-dry narrative as its multiple threads start to emerge and develop on their own. Because of this, like the inciting incident, there is a lot of confusion over what events count as Sideways' final two and most dramatically significant turning points: the End of 2nd Act Turning Point and the Main Story Climax. However, both are easy to identify as long as we remember one thing. The Story Spine is all about Miles healing through his relationship with Maya. This is what the story continues to be all about, even though Maya appears only sporadically for the rest of the film. Since this relationship is the focus of the Story Spine, the End of 2nd Act Turning Point and Main Story Climax must directly involve and build upon the relationship between the two.
In Act 2B, as usual in the Healing Narrative, Mile overcomes his initial resistance and becomes willing to heal. Only Jack's driving force is no longer available to make things happen. Miles must now man up and take responsibility for his own happiness. Miles reaches success, only to have his negative traits screw things up once again.
The second act ends with a traditional Dark Moment – though the scene itself is so short and subtle that it usually slips under the viewers’ radar without them noticing that the storyline has taken a dramatica turn. The End of 2nd Act Turning Point is not the moment when Miles has his falling out with Maya. It is not when Jack gets his face bashed in. It is the scene afterward when Miles, at his lowest moment calls Maya from a pay phone and leaves her a voicemail in which he admits he is a loser. This is an admission of failure on Miles' part. He is symbolically throwing in the towel, giving up on not only finding any kind of happiness with Maya, but possibly with anyone else in the future. Just like any run-of-the-mill Hollywood flick, the protagonist reaches his deepest, darkest point right before the moment he and Jack must begin their final journey home.
The third act of Sideways is nearly a carbon copy of the third act of Payne's previous film About Schmidt. Both protagonists accept failure at the end of their second acts and return home in despair. Their lives then circle the drain as both seem to give up altogether. Then, the gloom is reversed by a nearly identical burst of hope.
Not long ago, I read an article on Sideways in which the writer claimed the story's climactic moment occurs in the extremely short scene where Miles drinks his prized bottle of wine alone in a burger joint. I don't know what kind of crack was in this guy's pipe, but this is absolutely ridiculous. First of all, the story is not about the bottle of wine. Drinking it does not resolve any conflict or do anything to complete the Story Spine, so there is not way that this action could constitute the climax. Furthermore, what idiot of a screenwriter would put a story's climactic moment in the middle of a montage? Not the end of the montage. The middle. If the montage itself has not yet finished giving all it had to say, how does it make any sense that the story itself finds its end smack-dab in its middle? Miles's drinking of the wine holds no significant to the plot other than the symbolic. It communicates that he has given up on having any more great moments in life, the kind he has been saving the bottle for. Now, if this really were the story's climax, how depressing would this ending be? “Miles needs to heal. Miles fails. Miles gives up. THE END.”
No, dummy. Where the hell is Maya?
The entire Story Spine has been about Miles' relationship with Maya. Every major turning point has been about Maya. Therefore, to end the story with any kind of satisfactory closure, the climactic event must not only involve Maya, but resolve the entire situation between the characters. Sideways's real climax comes the exact same ways as the climax of About Schmidt, only instead of a letter from Ndugu, it is a voicemail from Maya. The protagonist has given up on life and resigned themselves to failure, only to receive unexpected contact from the person they really care about, reversing their view of the world into one once again filled with hope. Maya's voicemail – and more importantly, the scene that follows – completes Miles' Story Spine and resolves all story conflict. The story's Major Dramatic Question has asked “Will Miles ever heal?” After hearing Maya's voicemail, Miles abandons his last bit of resistance towards healing and bounds after the one thing he needs to make himself whole again. The moment he knocks on Maya's door, Miles is a fully-healed man.
Return of the Jedi
Here's something that will make you sound smart the next time you're around a bunch of know-it-alls. Sideways and Return of the Jedi are the exact same type of story. Jedi is also a Healing Narrative.
First of all, it must be noted that the original Star Wars trilogy follows the same unique structural form as that seen in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In this structure, the first film is a single, self-contained adventure where the protagonist is at the head of a group of supporting heroes. Then, in the second and third installments, plot structure splits into two dual narratives. In the primary narrative, the protagonist from the first film continues the quest established in the first film, only this time he does so (relatively) alone. However, this is only half the film. The other half of the film is made up of separate-yet-connected secondary adventure, in which a former supporting character steps up into a leading role. (Han Solo becomes the protagonist of the secondary narratives in Empire and Jedi. Aragorn takes this role in The Two Towers, Gandalf in Return of the King.) Therefore, to study Jedi as a Healing Narrative, one must ignore all the stuff with Han Solo running around Endor with a bunch of teddy bears, because that material is all part of a secondary narrative that follows its own line of action.
Jedi's Healing Narrative is all about Luke Skywalker. Due to the actions that ended The Empire Strikes Back, Luke begins Jedi a wounded man, both physically (he lost his hand in battle with Darth Vader), and emotionally/psychologically (the revelation that Vader is his father has traumatized Luke and left him in a morass of emotion). Like Miles, Luke must be made whole again.
At the inciting incident, Luke receives the challenge through which his healing will be achieved. He is told by Yoda he cannot complete his Jedi training until he confronts Darth Vader and overcomes his psychological wound. Luke then sets a goal. He will not only face his father, but will try to save Vader’s soul and bring him back to the virtuous side of the Force.
It must be noted that Darth Vader is NOT the antagonist in Jedi. The Emperor is Luke's antagonist. Luke's goal is to bring his father back into the light. The Emperor directly opposes this goal through his desire to do the exact opposites – draw Luke to the Dark Side with his father. Vader himself remains relatively passive. Jedi is almost like a hackneyed romantic comedy where Luke is trying to steal his dream girl away from her jerk fiancee.
However, like Miles in Sideways, Luke Skywalker has internal flaws that stand in the way of his healing. Luke's wound cannot heal as long as he remains motivated by hate, anger, or fear – negative traits the Emperor uses against him. As in Miles’ case, Luke can either abandon these traits and clear a path to his healing, or he can succumb to them and let them drag him down into the Dark Side.
In the end, Luke wins, reconciles with his father, and heals the wound that has been inside him since the film began.