Monday, April 29, 2013

(Bonus Article) IRON MAN: A Hybrid Mantle

As I was planning my previous two articles on the Taking on the Mantle story type, I originally wanted to use the 2008 blockbuster Iron Man as one of my examples for the Crisis of Character subtype. However, when the time came to break my study films down and find their hidden connections, Iron Man gave me a lot of trouble. On the outside, it seemed to fit into the Crisis of Character mold along with the other films of that subtype such as Rushmore and As Good as it Gets. You have the deeply-flawed Tony Stark with his antisocial behavior. Stark begins the story thriving in a pleasant, selfish niche, a niche that is soon torn up by the roots when he is kidnapped by militants. Iron Man also contains the trinity of essential Crisis of Character players; the Flawed Protagonist (Stark), the Character of Attraction (Pepper Potts), and the Character of Disapproval (Lt. Col. Rhodes).

However, outside of this, Iron Man refused to conform to the pattern so clear in my other study films. It had an outside antagonist, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges). The story’s sequences did not seem to occur at the appropriate times. Tony Stark feels the urge to change as a person far too soon. And the Characters of Attraction and Disapproval did not have nearly as much influence upon the plot as they are expected in a Crisis of Character. I know “gurus” are usually good at shoehorning existing films into their vague models, but if I tried this, it would all be BS.

At first, I was going to blow it off by saying “Well, it’s a comic book movie. That genre just needs this type of stuff.” Then, looking closer into Iron Man’s plot, I realized something. I had seem its pattern before. Actually, I am embarrassed that I did not recognize it right away. While the film’s setup and character relationships followed the conceits of the Crisis of Character subtype, its plot followed the second subtype, the Crisis of Conscience. Iron Man is a hybrid of both Taking on the Mantle subtypes.

Though Stark has a deeply-flawed personality that prevents meaningful human relationships by pushing people away (Crisis of Character), he is also a character of latent morality that begins his story willfully aligned with a morally ambiguous industry (weapons manufacture) headed by a Force of Darkness character (Obadiah Stane). This second description is the hallmark of a Crisis of Conscience story, as seen in films such as On the Waterfront and Casablanca.

While no one can deny that Iron Man’s story “works” on an audience level, the fact that the film’s story type is six of one and a half-dozen of the other accounts for all the little rocky structural moments I have always felt while watching the film. The film must always compromise one of its formulas for the sake of the other.

Take another look at my previous article on the Crisis of Conscience subtype to observe its form.

While Iron Man’s first act conforms to the structure of a Crisis of Character, starting with its Protagonist in a comfortable niche which is then pulled up by its roots by outside events, it also, to a weaker degree, follows the requirements of a Crisis of Conscience first act. Stark is first sent by the Force of Darkness character on a minor mission (to sell the Jericho missile to the US military). This minor mission is necessary to establish the Protagonist’s loyalty to the unethical business he aligns himself with. In true Crisis of Conscience form, the Protagonist is then given a bigger, far more important mission by the Force of Darkness (however, via proxy through the sub-antagonist) – to build a Jericho missile for the militant group The Five Rings. (This sequence provides the film with the first bump in its structural road. Since we do know until much later that the Five Rings are in league with Obadiah, this sequence feels disconnected from rest of the film to follow and leaves the audience confused over who is the real villain of this film.)

From this point on, the plot of Iron Man sticks almost exclusively to the Crisis of Conscience form.

Because of the “mission” Stark was given at his inciting incident, he begins his second act in a state of moral dilemma. Should he play it safe and continue towing the company line (continue creating weapons that bring death and destruction), or should he follow a newfound moral urge to break away and do what is right? Unfortunately, Iron Man lacks a key component of the Crisis of Conscience formula that helps establish and develop this dilemma. There is no Outside Relationship Character. The Outside Relationship Character is the Crisis of Conscience’s most essential supporting character. He or she is a force of goodness who asks the Protagonist for help, thus becoming the magnet that slowly draws the Protagonist away from the Force of Darkness and onto a righteous path. Iron Man briefly features a character who seems to fill this role, Dr. Yinsin (the man trapped with Stark in the militant’s cave). However, Yinsin dies at the end of the first act. For the rest of the film, instead of a physical character urging the Protagonist towards goodness and justice, Stark is left with simply an abstract feeling that he should “do what is right.” Though admirable, this ambiguous impulse leaves Stark’s motivations a bit hazy for the rest of the film.

In trues Crisis of Conscience form, Stark’s moral dilemma grows throughout Act 2A. The Force of Darkness notices this change of behavior and warns the Protagonist against it. Just like in On the Waterfront, Casablanca, and Michael Clayton, the Protagonist stays more or less on the fence until the Force of Darkness commits an act so morally reprehensible that the Protagonist can no longer turn a blind eye. Obadiah openly admits to supplying the massacres committed by the Five Rings as well as who knows what other kinds of evildoers.

At the Midpoint, Stark takes his first decisive action against the Force of Darkness by suiting up as Iron Man and defeating the Five Rings. Then, just like Johnny Friendly in Waterfront or Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton, Obadiah comes to realizes that Stark is now a legitimate threat and must be quickly eliminated.

The Force of Evil tries to destroy the Protagonist at the end of Act 2B. The Protagonist survives. The Protagonist launches himself into Act 3 knowing there is only one right thing to do: fully abandon his old ways and absolutely destroy the Force of Darkness. This is a textbook Crisis of Conscience ending. However, the storytellers managed to still execute its action in a way that still manages to come full circle and also fulfill the third act needs of the Crisis of Character: a big selfless action that proves the Protagonist has changed as a person, finally winning over the hearts of both Character of Attraction and the Character of Disapproval.

This hybridization has both advantages and drawbacks. On the upside, it allows the kind of intense action the comic book genre requires. While Crisis of Character stories focuses mostly upon an internal conflict and personal character growth (in other words, stuff that is not very visually thrilling), the Crisis Conscience is all about taking decisive physical action for what is good and right. On the downside, this form downgrades two characters very important to Stark’s transformation, Pepper Potts and Col. Rhodes, into mere supporting characters. Their relationships with Stark become minor subplots backing up the big action, rather than the causes for the plot itself.

This hybridization can also be seen to a smaller degree in a film discussed in my previous article: Liar, Liar. Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) begins the story aligned with a morally ambiguous law film, working underneath a Force of Darkness-like boss. Fletcher is ordered to win a case, one in which Fletcher knows he is standing on the wrong of right or wrong. This creates a moral dilemma in Fletcher, eventually leading him to reject the firm. However, once again hybridization has its drawbacks. Liar, Liar’s plot is basically split in two. Throughout the film, the audience remains confused over what the story is really all about: The court case? Or Fletcher’s relationship with his son?

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The "Taking on the Mantle" Story Type, Part II: The Crisis of Character

Related articles: The 20 Common Patterns of Plot Progression; The "Taking on the Mantle" Story Type, Part I: The Crisis of Conscience

This month’s article took much longer to put together than I expected.

Last month, we broke down the second subtype of the Taking on the Mantle story type, the Crisis of Conscience. (See the article on the 20 Common Patterns of Plot if you have not already. Otherwise, this article will be pretty difficult to understand.) This month, we double back and analyze the first subtype, the Crisis of Character. Despite how common the Crisis of Character subtype first appeared to be when I began my research, its patterns proved quite difficult to spot and nail down. I found that a true Crisis of Character story pattern was not as common as I believed. A number of films I thought to be a Crisis of Character actually belong to its sister type, the Crisis of Conscience (Schindler’s List, Thank-you for Smoking). Some films appeared to fit the subtype upon first glance, but closer analysis revealed details that proved they do not to belong to the Taking on the Mantle category at all (For instance, two John Hughes comedies, Uncle Buck and Home Alone.) However, despite the difficulties, I am proud to say I have cracked the code, and rather than horde this hard-won knowledge, I am going to share it with all of you.

Our study films for this article:
As Good as it Gets
Liar, Liar

First, let’s review. A film with the Taking on the Mantle story type contains a plot in which:
The protagonist starts as an antihero – someone who is capable of being a hero, yet is unwilling due to selfishness or some other personal flaw. Events invade the protagonist's life to force him or her to take on the role of a hero. Though the protagonist may face a large threat from a force of antagonism, the protagonist's biggest obstacle is his or her own resistance to personal change. Development occurs when story events force the protagonist to change his or her behavior bit by bit from self-centered to heroic in order to reach the main story goal.

The Taking on the Mantle story type can be divided into two distinct sub-types: The Crisis of Character, and the Crisis of Conscience.

As covered last month, in a Crisis of Conscience (Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Michael Clayton), the Protagonist is a person of latent morality who begins the story aligned with an immoral or ethically dubious Force of Darkness. Events invade the Protagonist’s life that cause him or her to question his or her loyalty to this Force. The Protagonist eventually turns on the Force of Darkness, and defeats it.

The Crisis of Character subtype is quite different. Its Protagonist is a person who begins the story with a deeply-flawed personality. This flaw causes him or her to behave in an antisocial or socially irresponsible manner. Events invade the Protagonist’s life that cause him or her to realize the damage this behavior causes him/herself, and more importantly, others. Eventually, the Protagonist must decide to change the very nature of his or her being for the sake of forging stronger, healthier connections with his or her fellow human beings.


The Crisis of Character subtype revolves around the relationships between three essential characters: a Flawed Protagonist, a Character of Attraction, and a Character of Disapproval.

The Flawed Protagonist

Though the Protagonist may be a person of various attractive traits, his behavior is dominated by a major personality flaw. In fact, this flaw has become so pervasive it has come to be the essence of his being. (Since all four protagonists of our study films are male, I will refer to the Protagonist as “he” for the rest of the article for the sake of simpler grammar.) This flaw has built a wall around the Protagonist, socially isolating him from all meaningful contact with other human beings. Though this wall may serve to protect the Protagonist from the outside world and preserve his self-image, it prevents the fulfillment of any emotional needs. Though there may be characters who wish to get closer to the Protagonist, they choose not to, since dealing with the Protagonist’s flawed, self-indulgent personality gives them far more grief than they wish to put up with.

In our study films: Max Fisher (Jason Schwartzman) of Rushmore is about as impressive a young man as you might find. However, he is narcissistic and a borderline-sociopath, making him psychologically incapable of forming any true friendships. Shrek is an antisocial grump who would rather live in total isolation than put up with the difficulties that come from dealing with other persons. Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) of As Good as it Gets is an extremely talented author, but he is also a total misanthrope. He protects his obsessive-compulsive lifestyle by gleefully pushing every person away with rude and offensive behavior. Fletcher Reede (Jim Carrey) in Liar, Liar has had great success in his law career, but only because he has zero compulsion against manipulating everyone he meets with dishonesty.

The Character of Attraction

The Character of Attraction is a person with whom the Protagonist, for one reason or another, desires to have a closer, more intimate relationship. This is Miss Cross (Olivia Williams) in Rushmore, Princess Fiona in Shrek, Carol the waitress (Helen Hunt) in As Good as it Gets, and Fletcher’s son Max (that freakin’ kid) in Liar, Liar. Though this character may share the Protagonist’s feelings of attraction to one degree or another, he or she is hip to the Protagonist’s bullshit. The Character of Attraction
does not wish to get closer to the Protagonist because he or she knows the Protagonist’s flaw makes him too difficult or unpleasant to deal with. Even Fletcher’s son Max, though he may love his father with all his heart, is reluctant to trust Fletcher because he knows his father will constantly let him down. A majority of the story’s focus follows the Protagonist’s attempts to “win over” the Character of Attraction. Thus, this character’s story function is to provide the Protagonist with a tangible motivation to change as a person.

The Character of Disapproval

The Protagonist’s second essential relationship comes from a character loosely linked to the Protagonist through family (Fletcher’s ex-wife Audrey (Maura Tierney) in Liar), duty (see upcoming bonus article on Iron Man), proximity (Simon (Greg Kinnear) in As Good), or a tenuous friendship (Donkey in Shrek and Mr. Blume (Bill Murray) in Rushmore). Though the Character of Disapproval may admire the Protagonist for his
positive traits (if he has any) and hope for a healthy relationship between the two of them, this character openly disapproves of the Protagonist’s flawed behavior and is not afraid to say so. However, unlike the Character of Attraction, the Protagonist does not really give half a damn what the Character of Disapproval thinks. The Character of Disapproval is someone the Protagonist could really take or leave. Throughout the story, the relationship between these characters wavers from friendly to openly antagonistic. The function of the Character of Disapproval is to provide the Protagonist with the constant criticism necessary to slowly him towards change.

The Antagonist, or Lack Thereof

Though Crisis of Character stories may contain characters who are openly antagonistic or threaten the Protagonist (such as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, or Fletcher’s boss Miranda in Liar), these characters are not the stories’ real antagonists. In a true Crisis of Character, protagonist and antagonist are one and the same person. Rather than being undermined by an outside force, the Protagonist is his own worst enemy. The Protagonist’s personality seems to have two sides: a side that enjoys being flawed and antisocial, and wishes to remain that way; and a side that wishes to abandon the flaw and reach out to other persons. This splits the Protagonist like a Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde. Every time the Protagonist’s good side tries to make progress, the bad side pops up to sabotage everything. For instance, whenever Melvin Udall manages to make any progress with Carol, he is then stupid enough to give into his old ways and say something offensive. Whenever Shrek gets closer to another person, he feels the compulsion to once again push them away. Just as most films feature a Protagonist and Antagonist who openly wish to destroy one another, so does a Crisis of Character – only this battle takes place completely within the main character’s self.


Shrek is supposed to be a fairy tale. And as most fairy tales are good at, it provides a simple allegory to understand much more complicated stories of its same type. Shrek is an ogre. So are Max Fisher, Melvin Udall, and Fletcher Reede (figuratively, of course). Ogres are crude, disagreeable beasts who have no place in polite society. However, Shrek enjoys being an ogre. His disagreeable nature has given him a comfortable, albeit isolated, life. Unfortunately, this self-insulated life is invaded by an event that turns everything upside down. In order to get life back to how he knew it, Shrek is forced to journey outside his life of habit, interact with other persons, and perform tasks for others that he would never do under normal circumstances. 

Only then, something changes in Shrek. In performing these tasks, Shrek comes to realize there is something that feels good about interacting with people, even better than the insulating comfort he felt in isolation. Only this new impulse runs counter to Shrek’s orgeous nature, prompting an internal conflict. Shrek succumbs to his old ways, but only misery comes with it. In the end, Shrek abandons his former ogreous nature for a new one that is willing to embrace others with open arms. By achieving true relationships with others, Shrek finds happiness.

The Setup: A Comfortable Niche
The Protagonist begins the story living within a comfortable self-created little world. The Protagonist is happy in this world. In fact, he thrives in it – not despite of his flaw, but because of the flaw. Max Fisher’s narcissism has made a private little universe out of Rushmore Academy, a universe where he is king. Melvin Udall’s rejection of humanity has allowed him to insulate himself in a private world where he can embrace his obsessive-compulsive disorder rather than deal with its effects on others. Fletcher Reede’s compulsion to lie has given him a successful law career. In fact, he is one big case away from becoming a partner. Because this niche is so comfortable, the Protagonist believes his flaw to be a good thing. He sees no need to change, no matter what others may tell him. Only one thing is missing: genuine relationships with other people.

The Inciting Incident to the End of the 1st Act: Uprooting the Niche
As with any inciting incident, the Protagonist’s life is invaded by an event that disrupts the status quo. But unlike most inciting incidents, the Protagonist is not simply confronted by a threat or a challenge, but by something or a combination of things that completely tear up his comfortable niche by the roots. Max Fisher is expelled from Rushmore Academy. Shrek’s swamp is invaded when it is turned into a ghetto for banished fairy tale creatures. This uprooting may happen all at once at the inciting incident, or it may happen through a combination of events: one at the inciting incident and another at the end of the first act, with a number of minor disruptions in between. Fletcher Reede’s niche is first disrupted when Max’s birthday wish makes him unable to do his job as he always has. The disruption of Fletcher’s status quo is made total when Audrey tells Fletcher she is moving away and taking Max with her. Melvin’s uprooting begins small when he is forced to take care of Simon’s dog – that is, care for another living creature and have regular contact with the gay neighbor the homophobic Melvin wants nothing to do with. This is already a lot to handle for someone as OCD-ridden as Melvin. But Melvin’s precious life of habit is further torn apart when Carol, the only person in the world whose company Melvin enjoys, is no longer available to wait on him on his daily visit to the cafe. Melvin feels as if his universe is crashing down around him. By the end of the first act, the Protagonist feels lost, confused, and angry as everything he seemed to enjoy in the past has been destroyed.

Act 2A
The Protagonist desperately wants his comfortable niche back again. But to do this, the Protagonist must do the unthinkable: reach out to other human beings. The Protagonist asks the Character of Attraction and/or the Character of Disapproval for assistance. Melvin visits to Carol’s home to demand that she come back to work. Fletcher begs Audrey to change her mind. Max Fisher recruits Mr. Blume to help him speak to Miss Cross. Unfortunately, these other characters do not trust the Protagonist. After all, the Protagonist’s motives remain selfish, and the wall created by the Protagonist’s flaw remains as strong as ever. This failed interaction causes the Protagonist to, possibly for the first time, realize the effects his flawed behavior has on other people. Words alone are not going to reverse the Protagonist’s situation. He needs to take action.

So, the Protagonist takes an action or begins a course of actions in relation to the Character of Attraction he would never have even considered previously in an attempt to restore the status quo. As a side effect, this action forges a stronger bond between the characters. Melvin pays for a private doctor to take care of Carol’s son so Carol will not have to miss work. Max Fisher tries to make an honest go at his new public school with the help of Mr. Blume and Miss Cross as his tutor. Fletcher reaches out to his son in the hopes that his son will reverse his birthday wish. Though some of these actions, such as Melvin’s, may seem altruistic on their surface, they remain selfishly-motivated. All Melvin cares about is getting Carol to wait on him at the restaurant again.

Unfortunately, though these actions may yield a short-term benefit, things do not turn out exactly as the Protagonist expects. This is because the Protagonist’s flaw has kept him from understanding or predicting how the other characters may react. Carol wants to reject Melvin’s gift because she believes Melvin wants something sexual out of the deal. Fletcher fails at his attempt to reverse his son’s wish because Max does not want his father to lie again. Max Fisher finds that, instead of drawing Miss Cross closer to him, he has actually driven her into the arms of Mr. Blume.

The Protagonist feels rejected. To his surprise, his stone heart breaks. Through the pain of this emotion, the Protagonist realizes there may be something better in life than his selfish little niche. The Character of Attraction’s rejection causes the Protagonist to realize just how important the Character of Attraction is to him. The Protagonist then changes gears. He realizes that his only course to happiness will come by winning over the Character of Attraction and creating a permanent and satisfying relationship between to two of them.

The Protagonist then launches a new mission to do just that. However, this mission is still ill-conceived, since the Protagonist still relies on his flawed behavior to get him through it. Melvin agrees to take Simon on a road trip in the hopes that Carol will join them so he can grow closer to her. Only Melvin does himself no favors by how he talks to Simon and Carol on the trip. In Liar, Audrey gives Fletcher an ultimatum he must meet to so he will not lose Max. But to achieve this ultimatum, Fletcher must first get through his court case on time, something he struggles with to do due to his continued impulse to manipulate the situation through dishonesty. Max Fisher’s mission is the most ill-conceived of all. Max plans to “win Miss Cross back” through a narcissistic urge to destroy anything that stands in the way of what he sees as their love. This of course only pushes Miss Cross further away.

Sooner or later, the Protagonist realizes that the only way to succeed at this mission is by fighting against his flaw, and embracing its opposite. The only way happiness will come is by trying to become a better person. These new efforts have success. Fletcher wins his court case through honest means. Max Fisher and Melvin both find their way to a first kiss with Miss Cross and Carol.

Only this success is short-lived. Immediately after the victory, the Protagonist sabotages himself with an action that seems to ruin any future chance of the Protagonist and Character of Attraction sealing their relationship. Melvin says something so stupid and offensive that Carol never wants to see him again. Miss Cross discovers the duplicity that set up her intimate moment with Max and throws him out of her house. Fletcher is put in jail for contempt of court, making him unable to stop Audrey from taking Max away. It seems the Protagonist has failed.

Act 3
With the Character of Attraction seemingly out of the picture, the Protagonist has no one else to turn to but the Character of Disapproval. The two reconcile their differences and become honest friends. The Character of Disapproval then encourages the Protagonist to do whatever it takes, no matter how crazy, to win the Character of Attraction back. (Note that in Liar, Liar it is illogical from a story perspective that Fletcher reconcile with the Character of Disapproval at this point. Since Audrey is the one taking Max away to Boston, if they reconcile here, there would be no more third act. To get around this, the film achieves this plot point by way of a proxy character: Fletcher’s secretary Greta, a lesser supporting character who performs many story functions similar to the Character of Disapproval.)

The Protagonist takes one giant final action to prove to the Character of Attraction, and the world in general, how much he or she really means to him. This action must show the lengths the Protagonist is willing to go in order to be worthy of the Character of Attraction’s love. Melvin appears on Carol’s doorstep in the middle of the night to confess his love. Fletcher stops Max and Audrey’s plane from taking off just so he can see Max again. Shrek disrupts Princess Fiona’s wedding to Lord Farquaad. Max stages a big event that atones for not only his wrongs to Miss Cross, but everyone who has been the victim of his narcissism in the past.

By proving himself in such a dramatic fashion, the Protagonist fully and finally abandons the protective wall he has built around himself through his flaw. He is now willing to be vulnerable and emotionally available to the people around him. With such a show, the Character of Attraction has no choice but to give – maybe not in the way the Protagonist originally wanted – but one that suggests the Protagonist has achieved happiness and satisfaction, and will continue to do so in the future. This was only possible through a full and total change in character. The Protagonist has abandoned the clothing of a flawed ogre and taken on the mantle of a hero.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The HISTORY of scribbler, PART ONE (Fifth Anniversay Link-stravaganza!)

The end of this month will mark five full years since I began scribbler (originally titled “Uncelebrity” until circumstances inspired a change in format). Since that time, I have chronicled over seventy long-form articles detailing my personal exploration of the dark and hidden corners of screencraft. What began as a loose pile of gripes formed as a lowly script reader grew into a revolutionary new method of approach to the cinematic narrative, ultimately leading to the publication of my first comprehensive guide on the subject Screenwriting Down to the Atoms. Today, scribbler remains the only* screenwriting blog on the web dedicated to “Progressive Theory,” with articles that push at the limits of how the craft is taught and understood by challenging old ideas, developing new models, and unearthing discoveries never previously considered.
(*the only one that I know of. And trust me, I have looked. If anyone knows of another, please send me the link. I would love to read it.)

However, one of the difficulties that comes from teaching anything with a blog, is that they are by nature a very random method of communication. Like most blogs, scribbler’s monthly articles have little rhyme of reason to their choice of topic other than it was what happened to be on my mind at the time. Some topics are crucial to understanding the craft, while others are more trivial. Some are very well-written, while others are a bit rushed. Some articles are difficult to get anything out of unless you first read everything that has come before it on the subject; articles which are usually buried deep in the blog’s archives. So unless one is willing to go all the way back to the first article and read them all in the order they were posted, it is hard to get the most out of the thing.

So, in recognition of my five-year anniversary I have chosen a selection of what I consider my most useful articles, grouped by subject below. I admit I am a little embarrassed by the number of typos and redundancies in some of my early stuff. I was never an English Major and scribbler has never been the most professionally-edited blog on the planet. Luckily, I have gotten better with time. (When I wrote Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, I edited the original manuscript six times to keep it from being blog-sloppy.) Also, some the ideas proposed in my early articles turned out to be a bit primitive. Most of the original concepts have been further developed and expanded upon.

Enough self-abasement. Enjoy the articles listed below. Scribble on!

Story Structure

Story Development

F@#%THE CAT! (Aug 2010)


Writing the Scene

The “Atoms of Information” Theory

Story Types


Dialogue & Description
I H8 VAGUE (Mar 2011)


Writing Comedy

Stop Sucking!