Two New Movies That Demonstrate Story Physics

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by Larry Brooks on November 19, 2012

Watch and learn.  And have some popcorn while you’re at it.

I saw two movies this weekend that made me itchy to get back to you with a strong recommendation.  Not just because they’re excellent — they’re both in the thick of the emerging Oscar conversation — but because they have something to show you. Teach you.

You… me… anyone who aspires to write compelling fiction.

Even if you’re a novelist and not a screenwriter.  Especially that.

The first is “Lincoln,” the Steven Spielberg opus that previews like a life story… but isn’t.  It’s a small sliver of time in Abe’s life — four months, to be precise — and it showcases two things that are sometimes hard to wrap our writerly heads around.

This film shows us that even when the centerpiece of a story is the hero… even when the times and the setting are part of the appeal… when history is the star… even when there is an entire life worth writing about…

… what makes it all work is this: the hero NEEDS something, the hero WANTS something,… the hero DOES something heroic to achieve it… and there is OPPOSITION to those needs and wants… in the midst of compelling STAKES.

In other words, a PLOT.

A plot driven by EXTERNAL conflict becomes the stage upon which character, theme, and historical relevance are given a voice.

Oscars all around for Spielberg, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as his wife, Tommy Lee Jones as the unsung hero of the day, and Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame, who also wrote “Munich” for Spielberg) as the screenwriter, working from a 2005 book by Doris Kearns Goodwin called “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”

The other film is…

“The Sessions,” starring Helen Hunt and John Hawkes (who, coincidentally, has a key role in “Lincoln,” as well), based on an article by the real like hero, Mark O’Brien.

Bring a hanky and a hat — this is a sexually-oriented tale that pulls no punches.  Helen Hunt will be in the Oscar race if nothing else than for her courage.  It’s as thematic a film as I’ve ever seen, and you don’t have a clue that it is until you’re in the parking lot wondering why you suddenly want to reassess your entire life.

Like “Lincoln,” this film is character driven but relies on a PLOT to make it work.

Such stories always do.

THAT’s the thing I hope you’ll take away from this.  As a story coach I frequently see concepts that seem to forget this, that substitute character and history for dramatic concept and are left with no real story milestones to propel an unavoidably episodic narrative.

The other learning point here is THEME.  

Theme is one of the Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling, but the hardest to engineer into exposition.

The best themes are an outcome of the story, rather than a focus or an agenda of it.  Like conceptually-driven external conflict, theme is a tool best understood when witnessed and, even more effectively, consumed.

Both films deliver a banquet of consumption on these critical storytelling skills.

Martha November 20, 2012 at 8:33 am

Keep these coming, Larry. Each one gets me a little closer to understanding story structure and the crafting of a good plot.
“Character needs, wants something, does something, meets opposition and stakes are high.” My new mantra.

Lake November 20, 2012 at 10:06 am

Some of my favorite StoryFix posts are about movies not only because of the structure analysis but because they give me the perfect reason to get out of the writing lair. Thanks, Mr. Brooks. LL

Shane Arthur November 20, 2012 at 10:13 am

Story deconstructions for the win! Can’t get enough of these … ever.

Graham November 22, 2012 at 3:00 pm

Hey Larry

This is off topic but i am looking in your archives for the piece you did on Collateral. It was some time ago I think. Have you any idea which month and year you wrote it?


Larry Brooks November 22, 2012 at 3:38 pm

@Graham — think it was this one (toward the end): . That’s one of my favorite films as a story model, mainly because of the major Inciting Incidents that seem like a First Plot Point, but aren’t… the FPP happens when they are in the taxi and Cruise tells Fox what it all means, what’s ahead, what he must DO.

JD Adler March 28, 2013 at 11:34 am

Nice piece on plot development in an era so devoid of good writing (eg today’s paper had a review of GI Joe criticizing it for taking “non-stop action” too literally), Thank you.

Btw, sorry to nitpick, but you have a typo in first line of “Sessions” critique, unless you mean he is a “real like hero”. :) Thought you’d like to know.

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