A Three-Second Mistake That Ruined An Entire Movie


If you don’t understand what makes something a story, it’s possible to make a tiny change that makes it not be a story anymore. The worst example of this I’ve seen was a movie that was ruined by its last three seconds.

I don’t recall its name. It was about a man who fell for a selfish, manipulative woman. She committed a robbery/murder, collected the money, framed him for it, and left, leaving him tied up for the police.

That would be a tragic story if it were the man’s story. It can’t be the woman’s story, because she isn’t a sympathetic character, and because there is no question.

If she were a sympathetic character, we could worry whether she would succeed, but she is not.

If it were the man’s tragedy, you could ask what he might have done differently. If it were her tragedy — say she felt bad about doing it, or felt forced to do it, or was led almost inevitably to do it by the circumstances of her birth — you could ask whether those forces that led her to do it could be defeated. If she hadn’t made any money off it, you could ask why she did it.

But presented as the story of a woman who sets out to commit murder and burglary, and frame an innocent man for it by manipulating him emotionally, and gets away with it, there is no sympathy and no questions, and it is not a story.

The movie ran up to that point by playing on our sympathies for the man. I think. But by the simple mistake of following the woman as she walked away in the ending scene, rather than keeping the camera on the house where the man was tied up as she walked off-screen, they turned the final scene to her POV, turned the movie into her story, and threw everything I had felt up until that point out the window. Now it’s a movie about a protagonist who learned how to get what she wanted by murder and manipulation.

(BTW, this is one reason writers sometimes should write camera directions into their scripts.)

We’ve gone through this bit about definitions before. In my blogs, I use the word “story” to mean something more specific than “narrative”. I believe there’s some grammar or set of patterns that stories follow, and that things that don’t follow those patterns don’t get written down in books and called stories, except when someone makes a mistake. I believe the grammar and patterns have some parts that are different for different people and different cultures, but also that at some level of abstraction they are the same across most of human history. I use the word “story” to refer to narratives that follow these patterns.

If you want to use the word “story” differently, write your own blog. It won’t help the discussion here to say that “story” means any sequence of events. All that does is define away the problem.

By “story” I don’t mean the same as “good story”. We use “good” and “bad” too often to describe how well or poorly a story is executed. I want to figure out what kind of narratives can’t be made good stories no matter how much you polish them, and what kind of narratives are “stories” enough that you should bother polishing them.

The first stage of revision of a narrative is not polishing it, but figuring out how to turn it into a story. I push the characters and events around in my mind, and suddenly something clicks and I realize, Now that’s a story. That’s a thing that happens, a threshold that I cross, sometimes before even writing a word, and it’s the most important part of the whole process, and the most mysterious.


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