Everyone Has Reversals

Story Lessons, Big and Small (Warning: Spoilers!)

August 27, 2006

Do You Kiss Your Mother With That Script?

Question: What is the name of Toni Collette's character in Little Miss Sunshine?*

I saw it three hours ago, and I couldn't tell you.

Moms are getting the indie film shaft these days. Noticed it with Laura Linney in Squid and the Whale, too.

Little Miss Sunshine is a sweet, funny movie, that's generally working on the side of good. The movie sets up detailed, credible back stories for most of the characters, including Greg Kinnear's "9 Steps to Success" hoped-for book deal, Steve Carrell's failures in romance and Proust scholarship, and teenager Paul Dano's vow of silence on the road to becoming a test pilot. The more detailed the back story and desire line, the more satisfying it is when these characters are shaken up, and must become someone new.

And what's going on with Mom? Well, Mom's nice. And sensible, and rational. She's trying to keep the family together, but not obsessively so. She gets pissed, but it takes a lot, and it passes. She's... well, she's the mom.

If asked to describe this woman, what would you say? This character so lacks details in terms of back story, a desire line, or flaws, that you can't even properly call her a loser. And isn't this supposed to be a movie about losers?

I hate to be a girl, here, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. It’s painfully obvious this movie was written by a man. Because the mom character here is a black hole filled only by the powerful presence of Toni Collette.

But fear not, men. I don't deny you've got mad skills.
Most of these great mom characters were also written by the likes of you: Annette Bening in American Beauty; Frances McDormand in Almost Famous; Maria Bello in A History of Violence; Holly Hunter in The Incredibles… or Thirteen; Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets; Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich; Shohreh Aghdashloo in House of Sand and Fog; Samantha Morton in In America; Mary McDonnell in Donnie Darko; Joan Allen in Pleasantville... or Joan and Sigourney Weaver in The Ice Storm. Just to name a few.

And what do these memorable moms have in common?

  • They are neither good nor bad.
  • They have conflicting internal desires that render their characters complex.
  • They do not exist only for the rest of the family (or if they do, that gets challenged).
  • They are grounded by the particulars of their situation and family.
  • They play more than one note: joy, grief, rage, despair. Whatever the cocktail may be.
  • They have moments of both weakness and strength. They can be selfish; they can be wrong!
Moms are people, too. Let's dig a little deeper. If only so we can look our moms in the eye.

*Answer: Sheryl.

August 19, 2006

A New Spin on an Old Thread

Character arcs often feel familiar, making them predictable. You find yourself thinking, in the first twelve minutes: "Oh, I see--she's got to learn how to stand up for herself." And then the next eighty are spent waiting for that change.

Another option? New spins on old character arcs. Take
Rushmore: the coming-of-age story in reverse. Max is desperately trying to be older, wiser, more sophisticated than a fifteen year old. Which is why it's so satisfying when he happily dances with kite-flying Margaret Yang... it's time for the grown ups to be grown ups, and the kids to be kids.

Why don't we see more traditional character arcs flipped? Why couldn't we have the reverse of the "be yourself" arc? Or the flipside of the "loosen up a little" tale?

Let’s see the story in which a character must
stop trying to “seize the day” and instead, commit to a long-term plan. (I really believe this can be done.) Or a character who learns that the pursuit of love isn't necessarily worth sacrificing one’s own career, or family, or friends. (Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, I’m talking to you--that store was in your family for generations! I think you could hold a grudge a little longer.)

On a related note, I would also like to see the story in which the protagonist believes they'
re dead but it turns out they’re actually--gasp!--alive.

August 12, 2006

Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo

Some stories follow a pair of people, a group, or a team. In those cases? You want the worst character to be your hero.

By worst, I mean most flawed, most selfish, the biggest jerk, and/or the biggest loser. Read: the most interesting one.

Cases in point:

- I like 'em all, but the one I want the most time with? That asshole, Bill Murray.

American Pie
- Clueless boys all, but the kid whose viriginity is least likely to go is the biggest doof's: pie-boy.

As Good As It Gets
- Can't wait to cringe at the next horrible thing Jack says.

The In-Laws
- The weight of an arc rests on the shoulders of Alan Arkin or Albert Brooks, depending on your generation.

Any Woody Allen Comedy - Woody Allen. Keywords were flawed, selfish, jerk, and loser, right?

Protagonists have to have a lot of room to move around in, including a lot of room to grow.

This is almost a 'lesson from the incredibly obvious file', but I don't want to throw that header around too lightly...

August 05, 2006


Looking for a way to establish a lot about your character in very little time? See if you can't give them a speech in the first act. Like this one-- Hugh Grant's best man toast, early in Four Weddings and a Funeral:

"Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to drag you from your desserts.

There are just one or two little things I feel I should say, as best man. This is only the second time l've been a best man. I hope I did OK that time. The couple in question are at least still talking to me.

Unfortunately, they're not actually talking to each other. The divorce came through a couple of months ago.

But l'm assured it had absolutely nothing to do with me. Paula knew Piers had slept with her sister before I mentioned it in the speech.

The fact that he'd slept with her mother came as a surprise, but I think was incidental to the nightmare of recrimination and violence that became their two-day marriage.

Anyway, enough of that. My job today is to talk about Angus. There are no skeletons in his cupboard. Or so I thought... I'll come on to that in a minute.

I would just like to say this. I am, as ever, in bewildered awe of anyone who makes this kind of commitment that Angus and Laura have made today. I know I couldn't do it and I think it's wonderful they can.

So, back to Angus and those sheep.

Ladies and gentlemen, if you'd raise your glasses-- the adorable couple."

Sure, it's the better part of a page of script. But it's working pretty darn hard. Look at what we learn about this character from this speech: we learn he's single, and likely to stay that way. He's funny. He's an eloquent speaker-- at least, when it comes to other people's love. He's self-depracating. He's both a romantic and a cynic. And we learn this story's going to be about love, but with some definite racy bits.

A speech could be a cheat in the wrong story, but if it fits (there's a wedding, a funeral, a presentation, an award, etc.) why not let your character speak for themselves?