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Frozen: A Song of Doors and Windows

There’s a lot to love about Frozen, but for me, the part I always come back to is the way the movie uses doors and windows to express the inner lives of its leads, Elsa and Anna.

It’s symbolism, but not the kind that makes you step back and remove yourself from the narrative. The imagery connecting Anna and Elsa to the doors and windows in their environment feels natural, driven by the emotions and actions of the characters, and works to reinforce a central theme of the movie:

Do you open yourself up to others, or do you shut them out?

Crafting a story for children isn’t just about telling the story on its own, but working to teach children about how stories work.

With Frozen, the filmmakers reveal just a little of the mechanics of this process, while still keeping the story unpredictable and engaging, through how they use doors and windows in four songs.

Do You Wanna Build A Snowman?

After seeing the traumatic separation of Anna and Elsa by their parents after Anna’s injury from Elsa’s ice powers, the audience is introduced to Anna’s desire to reconnect with her sister.

Anna knocks on Elsa's door and asks "Do you wanna build a snowman?"

It’s a simple request, and it sets up the main relationship of the song: Anna and Elsa’s door. Through the years the song depicts, Anna directs all her attention and affection in vain at Elsa’s closed door.

In this shot, Anna bursts in from the left of the frame, stopping in the middle at the door. This focuses our attention in the center of the frame, giving what happens there a strong feeling of central focus.

But notice how the scene is shot at an angle, with the wall and door at a diagonal compared to the frame itself. It suggests that the dynamic of what we’re seeing is somehow off-kilter or skewed.

The song starts with an entire verse of Anna singing to the door, giving the audience multiple shots of the door from different angles and a chance to internalize the way that Anna’s relationship with her sister has become one-sided.

Anna at Elsa's door: "Come on, let's go and play."
Anna at Elsa's door: "I never see you anymore. Come out the door."

These shots are head-on, with wall itself visually balanced. Both sides of the door show equal portions of the red wallpaper and the frame around the door. This echoes how Anna is trying to bring a sense of order and normality back to her relationship with Elsa.

When Elsa finally replies to Anna, the audience doesn’t get to see her, keeping the audience in line with Anna’s perspective. We are denied a look at Elsa the same way Anna is.

As Elsa replies, the shots return to the off-kilter framing of the initial shot, relating to the refusal of Elsa to come back and return things to the previous natural order of her relationship with Anna.

When we are given a look at what’s happening behind the door with Elsa, it’s on her own terms. She’s trying to get a view of the outside world, but only through the glass over her window.

She’s looking for a connection to something outside, but she’s still kept separate. Isolated.

Look at how the first shot frames Elsa directly from behind, but when her powers accidentally discharge, the framing cuts to a diagonal echo of Anna outside her door.

When characters are emotionally off-kilter, so is the framing of their world.

Note the repeating triangular shape to the window panes. And consider the way that Elsa’s accidental ice discharge creeps up the windows, reminding us of the similar appearance between ice and glass.

And pay attention to how we’re seeing this window from the inside looking out. It’s isolating. A barrier, even when it’s transparent, is still a barrier.

Throughout the song, we get more of these shots where doors and windows are prominently featured in the background, highlighting the characters’ isolation and how they’ve been sequestered away from the rest of the world.

As she gets older, Anna continues talking to Elsa’s door, trying to lure her out. Again, the shot frames the wall at an angle, using that off-kilter diagonal.

When Anna begins talking to the art in the gallery, note the closed door behind her. She’s bouncing off the walls with energy, but kept contained in the space.

The room is framed at a slight diagonal, which mirrors the way she describes her actions and emotions as feeling off center and irregular.

As Elsa’s parents try to calm her down, the ice creeps up the wall onto the locked door behind her.

And there’s that diagonal framing again, with the corner of the room placed almost center in the frame.

We should have a quick sidebar about mise-en-scène (the arrangement of actors, objects, and the camera within a shot).

All these arrangements of characters and objects within the set are intentional, and the choice of where to frame them is intentional, as well. Think about how when working in a computer-generated environment, the possibilities of how to arrange space are nearly limitless.

You can’t run into a room that already exists and throw down a camera haphazardly to get the shot quickly and move on. Each element is created for a purpose.

So the choices about what to leave in focus near the characters, like the doors and windows, or how to arrange the characters and the “camera” in the space (including the angles of the shots) are done with what appears to be deliberate attention to keep the closed/locked doors on the periphery of the action as much as possible. There’s a desire to remind the audience of how these characters are kept apart from each other and the rest of the world.

And over the passage of time, Anna has come to accept the idea that this door will remain closed. Years have passed, and nothing will convince her sister to emerge.

Her intense energy as she slides past the door is cancelled out by the static shot and the straight-on framing. She’s full of motion and energy, but she’s trapped in an orderly, unchanging box.

And the framing of this moment is now directly pointed at the door, balanced with the rest of the frame. It tells the audience that Anna realizes the closed door is what counts as normal now.

Also note the direction of her slide: from the right side of the frame to the left. Think about the way that the way a culture’s language reads on the page influences the way they “read” an image.

When language moves from left to right on the page, like with the English-speaking culture that produced this film, the progression of objects within a frame from left to right feels more effortless and fluid. Moving from right to left feels like it takes greater effort; like it’s going against the grain.

This strain highlights Anna’s thwarted desire to make Elsa go against her established pattern and come out. Anna doesn’t even try.

The only thing that forces her to make one more attempt to break through to her sister is the death of their parents.

The tight focus of this shot gives way to a shot framed further away, drawing attention to the shadows in the room, but also a source of light behind her. Anna is isolated in the dark, reaching out to her sister.

The next shot reveals the source of the light —

It’s the window across from Elsa’s door. The outside world is trying to let a little light in to the moment, but they’re both trapped inside, in the dark, apart from each other.

And then the cinematography and set design sets us up for a dramatic, heartbreaking moment.

Anna slides down the door, bracing herself against it. It’s an unnatural choice for support, since a door could technically open, but she knows this one has been shut to her for so long. It’s as solid as a wall to her.

But it’s also the closest portal to her sister, and the closest she can come to actual contact with her.

Notice how the camera drops down with her as she slides to a seated position. She curls up into a near fetal position and makes herself small.

Just like when she was a child outside this same door. She brings herself down to that child’s view of the space right before her song reverts to a child-like plea for connection.

By moving in close at this moment, the audience is moved from the impression of reverting to a child-like attitude to confronting the raw despair on Anna’s face.

She’s confronting a future without her parents as well as without her sister. She feels more alone than ever before, and she’s desperate for any connection.

Which brings us to this amazing tracking shot —

The camera passes through the door to reveal to the audience that the sisters are closer than they think.

They’ve both lowered themselves to the floor — Putting themselves at a child-like height from back in the time before they were separated.

They are both hurting, but mirror images of each other, looking in opposite directions.

However, given the orientation of objects we’ve previously seen in this sequence, we know that they are both sitting with their backs against the door and facing out toward a window.

This placement of the two of them creates a declaration of the tension for the rest of the film:

How do we break the barriers between each other and the rest of the world?

Then the camera pulls back to show Elsa’s room, frozen in anguish. Flurries drift down in the frame, and ice radiates along the floor and the walls from her body. Her grief made manifest.

And as the camera pulls back from Elsa, it dissolves to a similar framing of Anna.

Two sisters sharing an emotion, but not sharing the same space.

And after we fade out, time passes, and we move ahead to the next major event in their lives that forces them together.

For The First Time In Forever

That’s right, Anna.

And what’s the first thing we see Anna do after she realizes that it’s Coronation Day?

She bursts out of her bedroom door. We get to see the door open, signaling a change from doors as a static presence to doors as an active portal.

Also, look at the way the dark hallway is brightened up as light spills out from Anna’s room when she opens the door. The pool of shadow is erased on the floor. It’s already suggesting the possibility that openness and connection are a way to erase despair.

In fact, the act of opening doors and windows is so important to Anna that she’s going to sing about it!

The subtext of the previous song becomes the text of this new song: There’s a tension between things that are open vs. things that are shut.

And there are just so many doors and windows to open in a castle.

As the castle staff marches in with plates, where I they coming through? Why, it’s a doorway!

And how has the camera been framing these moments? Lots of diagonals at first, but also pans that change the framing between diagonal and head-on. And then the shot with the plates comes in, and we’re locked down in a straight-forward composition.

A new order is arriving for this castle, disrupting the solitude of the past.

Anna runs past a hallway full of shut doors as she sings about lonely halls, then slides through a doorway into a ballroom. Her kinetic frenzy is in sharp contrast to her earlier moment where she ground to a halt in front of Elsa’s locked bedroom door.

Think about how many lines of this early part of the song are devoted to a reverie about opening doors. Anna has internalized the idea that a shut door is a bad thing.

And as she sings about how excited she is for things to change? She sticks her head out of an open window —

— and then climbs right out through it. She’s breaking through. Crossing over the threshold of what used to be a barrier between her and the rest of the world.

She moves from this off-kilter, diagonal framing into —

A head-on shot framing her swinging in front of a window.

She’s on the outside, looking further out. This is what feels normal to her, and she’s relishing every moment. She’s Swinging, as if to build up momentum to launch herself away from the castle and away from her lonely past.

And again, look at the way a door opening up brings light into a space:

Anna’s portrait gallery, full of her “friends” from her childhood, now brighter than before as she swings the doors wide open and lets the light in. Now the room is shot straight-ahead, highlighting the orderly corners and framing of the door and pictures on the wall.

The end of Anna’s confinement connects to a return to her sense of order and ease, and the framing of shots while she sings reflects this.

But what about Elsa? How’s she dealing with the excitement of Coronation Day?

She’s still on the inside, looking out.

Not only is she separated from the rest of the world in this shot, but the window pane frames her in within the frame. She’s boxed in; constricted. Even her body language and hair suggests someone tightly squeezed into their role.

And while the shot pushes in toward what looks like a straight-on composition, it’s still slightly off-kilter. Vaguely skewed.

And as she looks out the window at all the people preparing to enter the castle, she sings about not letting them see.

We get her reflection in the window, creating a double, divided image of Elsa. There’s the Queen-to-be who must be in view of her people, must be among them, and there’s the Elsa frightened of her power and her secrets, wishing to stay inside.

And then comes a lighting round of back and forth shots of the sisters.

The same line (“It’s only for today.”) delivered in two different tones: Elsa’s resignation as she stays locked up inside her room contrasts with Anna’s joy as she bursts through yet another door.

Elsa prepares herself for going out in public by putting on her gloves. She’s replacing the security of hiding behind a door with the less complete security of hiding her hands, believing that this will keep her powers locked away.

Look at the way she’s framed tightly with a darker background, keeping back from the light of the outside.

Anna rushes out of the castle, skipping and gleeful.

Both of them sing the line “It’s agony to wait.” with alternate, negative and positive takes.

And then a truly big moment —

Elsa finally opens a door.

But notice the difference with this shot versus the many, many shots of Anna opening the doors. There’s no light spilling out. It’s still dim. Elsa is still mired in the negative emotions that kept her locked away.

But she commands the opening of more doors. She’s not going to do it herself, but she’s going to allow it to happen. There’s a disconnect between the new openness of the palace and Elsa’s desire to continue to keep herself at a remove from it.

And this next shot steps back to reveal more of the hallway to Elsa’s room, showing that there is some light coming in from the windows in her hall, but reinforcing this idea that the shadows are still around her. She’s still in the darker world of despair.

Cut to Anna at the gate:

And there’s that contrast again: The shadowy world of the palace sees a crack in that darkness split open by the light spilling in from the giant door in the center of the frame. And Anna is right there, rushing out toward the light.

She bursts through the gate into the bright, open world, surrounded by the citizens of Arendelle.

The composition is diagonal, chaotic, and features two lines of motion. The citizens and guests are moving from left to right into the castle, while Anna moves from right to left, against the flow of traffic, out of the castle.

The people are moving into the castle for the coronation with ease and joyful anticipation, while Anna’s joy comes from escape. Even in a small way, she’s still struggling in this shot to move away from the place that kept her shut away for so long.

And where’s Elsa?

Making a slow procession, in the dark, toward a small sliver of light from a window. The composition is straight-forward, with Elsa also moving from right to left (connecting to the effort she’s exerting to maintain control).

Compare the surrounding people in the two shots, as well. There’s a disorderly crowd surrounding Anna, whereas Elsa’s hall has a few still, silent servants standing at attention.

Kinetic joy vs. restrained order.

When Elsa finally opens a door to a brighter view, she pairs it with the old reminder, based in her fear of failure and revealing who she is:

It’s a reminder that she sees masking her powers as a moral choice.

She’s supposed to be a good girl, and good girls don’t have magic. Good girls follow tradition, uphold rules, control themselves. Her powers are something unruly and that create a sense of difference.

This isn’t just a reminder that she has a duty as the queen-to-be, but that she sees herself as inherently flawed. She fears the world seeing who she is, because she has become convinced that who she is is wrong.

And these shots frame her in straight-ahead, level angles, showing her forcing herself into this mold. She must present herself as part of the natural order. She must present herself as an orderly part of this composition.

And when she steps outside, she stays up high above it all on a balcony. She’s still removed from the people of her kingdom, even at a moment when she’s stepped through a doorway into the light.

She’s removed herself from her captivity, but not from her isolation.

And through this song, we’ve taken the basic thematic elements of doors and windows and expanded on them, going so far as to comment on them within some parts of the song.

But now that all the doors in the palace are open, surely the movie is going to discard this thematic device and move on to something more relevant.

Love Is An Open Door

But you saw that coming, right?

When Anna and Prince Hans begin talking outside of the party, look behind them:

There’s one open door, and a closed door behind it.

Sidebar: Prince Hans Was Always The Bad Guy And This Shot Is Giving That Away

Open doors equal openness and intimacy. Closed doors mean concealing something, either affection or truth.

As Anna opens up to Hans, there’s an open door and a closed door behind them, one just behind the other.

Anna’s openness can only go so far, and there’s something Hans is concealing about his true intentions.

Why have two doors visible in one doorway? One door per person. In a relationship, both “doors” need to be open if that relationship is going to be honest.

“I would never shut you out,” he lies, lyingly.

End Sidebar

This film’s thematic work is being shown in the conflict between closed and open doors. Here we see one of each, prepping us for the topic of the song to come.

Anna starts singing and goes beyond the literal descriptions of action in the previous song into the realm of metaphor.

It’s not just about the excitement of open doors and what that openness can mean, but about how she sees her entire life to this point as being defined by being shut out and locked away.

And it’s not just about the doors being shut, but about how those doors have been shut at her. She, specifically, was being kept out.

So when we get to the hook of the song, it makes total sense for her to treat the moral of the story this way:

And we not only open a door on the word “door,” but the camera pulls back and up into the air, soaring out. It’s a big, sweeping camera move to echo the feeling of freedom that comes from escaping a space you’ve been trapped in.

Since the text of the song is all about love being an open door, and Anna feeling like she’s falling in love with Prince Hans, their musical number takes them through many doors throughout the castle and its grounds.

But look at how we have a skewed, diagonal composition as they sing “With you” to each other. Something’s up, and the visual language is clueing us in to the potential for shenanigans.

Even when they’re not going through doors, there are doors in the frame with them, like the doors these mechanical figures emerge from in the clock.

Or when they dance on the lighthouse, and we see them on the outside of a window, lit from behind. It reinforces the idea that windows are another type of enclosure, but that when you’re on the outside of them, you’ve passed through. You’re free.

And the light of the lighthouse echoes the bright spaces from the previous song, suggesting that openness and love can erase the shadows of despair.

Even in this quick Scooby Doo moment in the stables, light shines out as Anna opens the doors.

So, we get it. Open doors are about love and intimacy. Closed doors are about concealment and fear.

So what happens when we get a moment where there are no doors? Wouldn’t that mean a sense of total openness and freedom?

Let It Go

This shot of Elsa on the mountain after she’s run away from the castle acts as a reversal of the swooping shot from the last song. Instead of bursting out in joy, it circles around her, swooping in, like a bird of prey.

Watch as Elsa not only trudges uphill, but from the right of the frame to the left of the frame, accentuating the difficulty of her journey.

And while we can see a clear sense of the direction she’s moving, the curving path of the camera keeps things off-kilter. We’re not viewing this from a diagonal angle, but a continuously shifting diagonal, straining toward order.

She’s out in the open now, but she’s also alone and in the dark. This isn’t a positive kind of openness because we’re not seeing the other signifiers that have come along with the open doors and windows of previous songs: Light, vibrant kinetic movement, or other people.

First off, game recognizes game: That was a sick pun, Elsa.

Think about the way in which this moment in the song recontextualizes the way isolation has been depicted so far in the movie. Instead of being shut away, she’s exposed, but still alone.

And here we get a reminder that our focus on Anna’s feelings about being shut out has its polar opposite (intend your puns, cowards). For Elsa, it was never about keeping Anna locked out, but keeping herself locked in.

Being out in the open feels like a failure to Elsa, because her one goal was to stay concealed.

Again, Elsa feels that there’s something distinctly wrong with her; that her very existence is somehow a moral failing. She’s been raised to believe that she is flawed, and that the only way to deal with that is to let people believe she’s something that she’s not.

Normal. Following the rules and traditions. “Good.”

And she’s reached the point, up on this mountain, where she sees this worldview crumbling. There are no doors to hide behind anymore. There’s no reason to conceal her true nature, since she just showed it to the entire kingdom at once.

She can’t take those moments back, and she can’t lie, so it’s time for a change.

And as she removes the glove she’s been using to contain her powers and conceal her identity, the camera pulls up into the sky, soaring away, much like when Anna had a similarly powerful declaration to make.

This is where we need to talk about “Let it Go” as empowerment anthem.

The song is bold. It’s got a meaty hook, built for belting out in sing-alongs. It’s pulsating with 1.21 gigawatts of pure, raw emotion.

But it’s also sad, and ambiguous, and frightened.

Elsa starts by popping little flurries from her hands, and then she builds the thing that Anna begged for all those years ago: A snowman.

It’s like she’s a printer that was just reconnected with jobs left in the queue. She’s rebooting herself, and remembering what it was like to be a child and take joy in her powers.

This is positive growth for her. So it’s all good! She can keep moving forward and —

ELSA, NO. ELSA. STAHP.

Turn away and slam the door

Elsa, you are on a mountain. There are no doors here.

You’re contradicting the visual signaling we’re expecting where this open space is now being verbally tied to the restrictive notion of closed doors that the movie established in its previous songs.

And turning away and slamming the door isn’t necessarily an empowered move, especially when your life has been defined by shutting doors to hide behind them.

This song sends plenty of contradictory messages.

Elsa lets go of a restrictive, concealing cape, shrugging it off and allowing it to fly away, but she does so while singing about letting the storm rage on.

The storm sparked by her fear. The storm generated by her powers when she lost control.

She’s not reveling in the possibility of healing brought about by accepting and acknowledging her powers openly. She’s refusing to be responsible for them.

The cold never bothered me anyway” could just as easily be read as “All this ‘eternal winter’ sounds like your problem, not mine.”

Elsa looks positively joyful, but once again, she’s moving from right to left. There’s difficulty and struggle here.

This line suggests that she’s gaining a sense of new perspective, potentially one that could promote healing by recognizing her problems aren’t daunting and insurmountable after —

And there goes that possibility.

She walks backward, again from right to left, singing about how she’s escaping from her fears. Not conquering them.

She’s literally moving backward in her emotional journey, deeper into the darkness.

She’s balancing these positive couplets that sound empowered and resolved —

With couplets that make her sound like she’s just further separating herself from other people.

Elsa goes full Magneto, declaring herself beyond the moral policing of mere mortals, as she builds a magical staircase to ascend higher than everyone in her kingdom. She wants them to seem even smaller to her.

She wants to be so high above their judgement so that she never feels like she is wrong or immoral again, instead of interrogating those morals that were forced on her by her family and their fear.

When she yells “I’m free!” you need to question the motivation behind the declaration: The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

As she runs up the staircase, the song ascends with her, and she makes what sounds like a positive declaration of being “one with the wind and sky.”

She sees herself as a part of the natural world. She isn’t an aberration. She isn’t a defect. She’s not bad and wrong.

At least, that’s what she’s trying to convince herself of.

Elsa still wants to be hidden away. She still feels broken and scared, even if she consciously knows she shouldn’t. She fears the judgement of others.

Again, the camera soars up high on what’s supposed to be a positive, strong declaration of emotion. Elsa is taking a stand. She’s using her power to claim a place for herself.

But the way she claims that space highlights how much further she needs to travel on her emotional journey.

Because what is this business all about?

She’s rising up and building something out of ice for herself.

Something that she’s filling in with doorways —

Oh no.

No, Elsa. Don’t do it.

As the roof freezes into place, it’s entirely clear what’s going on:

Elsa is building herself a new place to lock herself up inside.

She hid from the world in her family’s palace before, but that’s not an option this time. So she’s building a new palace to shut herself away in.

Sure, she’s taking her hair down, but it’s still in a tightly controlled braid.

Everything around her has gone dark again, and all of this reinforces that while she’s singing about letting things go, she hasn’t actually let go of her fear, or her internalized self-hatred.

Because no costume change or fun new hairdo can change the fact that she’s walking through a doorway —

That she’s stepping out onto a balcony, just as she did before on coronation day.

She’s out in the open, but she’s not out in the world. She’s above it. Sequestered from it.

But she’s moving from the darkness toward the light, and we’ve associated that with positive emotions for several songs. There’s still hope that Elsa is going to move away from despair and toward —

Nope. She built herself a door just so she could shut it.

She retreats out of the sunlight, back into the shadows of her freshly chilled castle.

She still has a long way to go on her emotional journey.

So what does all of this matter?

This is how symbolism works when it works well.

The symbolism helps clarify the theme for the audience, and the theme is posing a question instead of making a declaration. The story is there to work out an answer to the question over the course of the full story, instead of using each moment of the story to hammer home a single answer.

But it’s not just the appearance of a single, repeated symbol that does this work in telling the story. All the other elements of craft that go into filmmaking must support the idea if the audience is going to come away with a clear sense of what they’ve seen and what it means.

The door as a symbol doesn’t earn its place until we’ve gotten used to the idea of the door as a natural part of the conflict at the heart of the character’s lives.

Without Elsa hiding in her room from Anna, and without Anna’s persistent attempts to get Elsa to open her door, nothing that follows would work.

The emotions of the characters as they play out the drama of their separation give the door a tangible thematic resonance.

Think about it like a magic spell placed on a lamp so that every time the lamp is touched, it burns brighter.

The more times that lamp is touched, the harder it is to ignore whenever you see it. And the brighter the lamp glows, the more its light reveals to us about what else is nearby.

One-time symbolic gestures don’t grow in influence over the audience. It takes a steady introduction and re-introduction of something useful to telling the story for that object’s thematic and symbolic weight to reach its full potential.

After we’ve seen the use of these doors play out over four songs, we get a sharper sense of how they relate to the overall story, and the way that it’s all about a question of if you open yourself up and make yourself vulnerable, or if you instead close yourself off.

The genius of the door as a thematic device is that it doesn’t act as some kind of didactic “Open good. Closed bad.” metaphor.

Anna is all about openness, leaving her vulnerable to Prince Hans and his plot to take over the kingdom. Elsa is constantly closing herself off, but that prevents her from seeing how she can solve the problems caused by her magic and her fear, or from seeing the importance of her relationship with her sister and how the two of them can help balance each other.

And this dual nature of the problems reminds us why a door is such an excellent choice: it can be either open or closed.

A door needs to be either/or. If you just have a wall, nothing can pass through. If you just have an open space, anything can pass through at all times.

The door allows you to choose whether it’s open or closed, but it also allows you to choose to change your mind.

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Plants and Payoffs in Comedy Writing: Parks and Recreation

Comedy Has Structure

Long form comedy isn’t just a series of jokes. Whether it’s a sitcom, a film, or a stand-up set, there’s a structure to humor that relates to dramatic structure.

Over time, strong comedy builds. New jokes call back to previous jokes. By the end, you haven’t just watched a string of unrelated funny moments, but you’ve seen how one joke leads into a joke later on.

Great comedy builds. It lifts the audience up.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’d like pick apart the inner workings of an episode of Parks & Recreation.

Parks and Recreation Episode 4×11 – “The Comeback Kid”

There are a few key elements of the larger story of this season that help set up this episode:

  • Leslie and Ben are in a relationship, but Chris had a policy forbidding romantic relationships between co-workers.
  • The discovery of this relationship created the scandal that damaged Leslie’s candidacy for city council and lead to Ben resigning his position in the government.

A quick synopsis of the episode:

With Leslie still reeling from her poll numbers plummeting and her campaign staff abandoning her, she recruits her co-workers as a replacement staff to stage a re-launch for her city council campaign at the Pawnee Sports Building. Seeing that Ben has spiraled into a depression brought on by resigning his job, Chris attempts to lift his spirits.

There are three main plot lines to this episode:

  1. Leslie and Ann attempt to convince former Pawnee High School basketball star “Pistol” Pete to appear at the event and endorse Leslie.
  2. Ron leads a group of the rest of the new campaign staff in preparing for the event.
  3. Chris attempts to break Ben out of his funk, which needs to start with getting Ben to recognize he’s depressed.

Plants and Payoffs

A plant is when a writer offers a piece of information to the audience early on in a story ahead of when they absolutely must use it. It’s making sure the audience is thinking about some aspect of the story, be it the stakes, a task some character needs to perform, or even a specific object important to the story.

A payoff is when the writer cashes in on the audience’s memory of that earlier plant, using that information to resolve a story, tell a joke, or throw a twist at the audience.

There are two specific payoffs in this story that weave together the three story lines, and we need to talk about them first to get a better idea of what to look for in their construction.

Payoff One – The Climax

Leslie prepares to walk out into the Pawnee Sports Building believing that she doesn’t have Pistol Pete, her stage is incomplete, the banner she ordered has an error, and to make matters worse, the basketball court she thought she’d be walking out on has been resurfaced as ice for an upcoming hockey game.

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Leslie’s campaign staff vows to go out and help her try and save face, only to see that Tom couldn’t order a red carpet that leads all the way to the stage.

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As they shuffle together across the ice, a short clip of Gloria Estefan’s “Get On Your Feet” loops (a clip that would’ve been a perfect duration for a brisk walk across a basketball court).

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Champion, April and Andy’s new dog, starts peeing on Ron.

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In the scramble to get up on the stage, Leslie’s notecards got out of order, and she starts delivering an incoherent speech.

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At the last moment, when Leslie admits to the crowd that this campaign event was a disaster, Pistol Pete shows up in his old jersey to endorse Leslie. When he attempts to make a slam dunk at the end of his speech, he slips on the ice and injures himself.

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Even out of context, these moments are funny, but there’s more at work. Each of these jokes has an origin point earlier in the episode, planting these ideas to play with the audience’s expectations.

Because you were taught what to expect by the earlier parts of this episode, you’re rewarded for your attention and your patience with even bigger laughs.

Payoff Two – The New Story Direction

After Chris talks Ben out of his funk and gets him thinking about how to make better use of his time, Leslie and the rest of the campaign team show up, fresh from the disaster at the Pawnee Sports Building.

Leslie approaches Ben and asks him to step in and be her new campaign manager. After seeing what happened without someone with political experience at the helm, she wants Ben there, no matter if his connection to her scandal and polling problems could damage her chances.

This launches a new phase of the story where Ben and Leslie will directly work together on her campaign, but the emotional payoff of this moment requires us to see how much Ben and Leslie need each other (due to seeing the disasters they have to deal with when they intentionally keep themselves apart).

Turn by Turn Directions to Our Destination

So let’s take a look at the big picture. In the following graphics, I’ve charted out, scene-by-scene, what happens, and what information is used to build the story toward the climactic moments.

Some things to pay attention to:

  • Notice how the writers keep most of these plot threads separate from scene to scene until we get to the final act. These individual threads and stories have a distant connection at first, but they start to interact the deeper we get into the story.
  • Look at the way the narrative moves between the different storylines. We spend a little time with Ben & Chris, then back to a part of the main storylines dealing with the “Comeback Kid” event.
  • The sheer density of this show’s writing. There are moments that barely qualify as having a setup, like how Jerry’s job to pass out flyers to get an audience is a note on a whiteboard, yet it comes back at a crucial moment to raise the stakes for Leslie.

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Sleight of Hand

But the writers can’t just have the characters look at the audience and say “Hey, here’s a new dog for Andy and April! Pay attention to this dog’s wacky hi-jinks and get ready for it to do something really funny near the end of the episode!”

When planting an element to set up a later joke, it needs to be introduced to the audience so that they’re only mostly paying attention to it.

A successful plant lets the audience know something is there without giving away that the writer wants their attention drawn to it.

Think about a magician. They’ll tell you where they want you to look, and they’ll tell you what they’re going to do, but they’re always conscious about drawing your attention away from the actual work of the trick.

They want you to know you’re being fooled, but they don’t want you to know how.

It’s the same with comedic storytelling. The writer wants the audience to laugh as much as possible, but they know that laughter will be stifled if the audience is too aware of the construction of the jokes and the dramatic storytelling underneath.

Nothing kills a joke like telling somebody that it’s going to be so funny.

So let’s break down one scene as an example.

Anatomy of a scene

(Please note, this isn’t the actual script for the episode. It’s a transcription I made to help explain this point.)

I’ve added some notes to the scene highlighting where important plot threads are referenced or introduced, and adding specific notes on how these jokes introduce exposition and plant information in a way that avoids falling flat.

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By disguising the planted elements with conflict and humor, the writers keep the audience’s attention on the present moment and don’t give too much away about what they have planned for Champion and Ben.

Tying it all together, these elements of conflict and humor are based in what the audience already knows about the characters. Ben is rigid in his behavior and frequently doesn’t understand other people’s enthusiasm. April & Andy are impulsive, and they regularly go all-in with their enthusiasm if it’s something they both care about.

We know these characters because we’ve grown to care about them. Without that emotional connection, the jokes can’t help to obscure the intent of the planted material, and the payoffs won’t land with full force.

We need to care if we’re going to laugh.

We need to care about Ben’s mental health, and his rebound from losing his job and sense of identity. We need to care about Leslie’s desire to win the election and become part of Pawnee’s City Council. We need to care about the desire of her friends and co-workers to help her.

We even need to care, at least a little bit, about Pistol Pete. A character we just met needs to be human enough that his decision to embrace his past and endorse Leslie with a dunk means something.

A man choosing to do something foolish, like try and dunk a basketball on a hockey rink, is funny. A man choosing to do something foolish because we know, in his heart, this is about rising up and coming to terms with a deep, internal pain… That’s comedy gold.

Mounting My Own Comeback

I used to write a lot more about film and television. I used to make a lot more time to watch film and television.

This blog was something I approached from a place of intense study and small a authority. Coming fresh out of grad school, I had a lot of information in my brain and not always a lot of clear outlets for it.

I don’t know what it is now. You’re just as likely to see me writing about my daughter and our cat as you are to see me dissect a television episode.

I’m not sure what it’s going to become, either.

I know this is my place on the internet to do what I wish. I know that I’ve got lots of ideas. I know that there are other things I’m writing and working on that aren’t even related to it.

Life is a lot messier than fiction. Not everything you plant pays off later.

But I care deeply about storytelling. And I care deeply about putting these ideas out there. I want to make sure I don’t leave that behind as I head toward whatever happens to come next.

I’ll leave the last words to Leslie Knope:

“Well, um, I can assure you people in the bleachers that, if you follow my campaign, it will be interesting.”

 

Categories
longread

Show me what you lie about and I’ll show you who you are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz had an interesting op-ed in the New York Times this past weekend. Using data from Google searches and social media posts, he makes a point about the separation between our public and private lives:

Think of the aphorism quoted by members of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” Of course, this advice is difficult to follow. We never see other people’s insides.

I have actually spent the past five years peeking into people’s insides. I have been studying aggregate Google search data. Alone with a screen and anonymous, people tend to tell Google things they don’t reveal to social media; they even tell Google things they don’t tell to anybody else. Google offers digital truth serum. The words we type there are more honest than the pictures we present on Facebook or Instagram.

But this isn’t just a useful reminder to check your envy when you see yet another picture of your friend’s trip to the alpaca farm.

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I know it’s hard to not be jealous of how fluffy that hug looks, but try.

This is a strong tool for better understanding the people you create from whole cloth.

Nobody Tells The Whole Truth

We need to draw a distinction between deception and omission.

Deception requires actively perpetuating falsehoods. Omission involves allowing a false impression due to lack of contrary evidence.

The line between deception and omission can be thin.

  • We think things about people that we never say to them, whether these are feelings of affection, disgust, or anything in-between. We omit this information. It becomes a deception if we say something contrary to what we’re thinking about them.
  • We post that picture of an expensive dinner we had, but we don’t share that we used a Groupon to be able to afford it. It’s a deception if we take the Bow Wow challenge and use the picture to talk about how fancy we are 24/7.
  • We show up for book club even though we only started reading the book the day before and nod along to the conversation. The omission lets us enjoy the company of others. It becomes a deception if we skim some talking points about the book from other sources and try to contribute as if they were our own thoughts.

Even though it may seem that omission is just a lesser form of lying, by the very nature of the self, we never truly share everything about ourselves with those around us.

Even people who regularly overshare are engaging in a deception: Wishing to be thought of as a completely open book. But even the person who will tell you every minute, embarrassing detail of their lives is still withholding information from you.

Take a moment and sit quietly. Follow how many thoughts you have in just one minute. No seriously, set a timer…

It’s amazing how long a minute can feel. Now imagine the exhausting task of sharing every single stray thought over the course of a day. Imagine the impossibility of communicating with others if we had to wade through all the noise in each other’s heads.

That’s why we pick and choose what parts of ourselves we present to others.

In a sense, deception is aspirational. Fake it ‘till you make it. An attempt to put forward the image of ourselves we wish we could truly be.

Here again, we need to draw the line: Omissions that don’t give others the whole story are natural and unavoidable. Lies are deliberate attempts to misdirect people toward false impressions.

Lies raise the stakes. You can forgive an honest omission, but a lie increases the burden to earn forgiveness.

These differences between the internal life of a person and the external life they show to the world are important to understand when we want to leverage it dramatically in developing characters and stories.

Deceptions Humanize Characters

As the audience, we have an important advantage over the other people in a character’s world: We can see a character when they think nobody’s watching.

When we see the contradiction between a character’s presented self and their internal self, it helps to make a fictional person feel dimensional and real. We relate to that feeling of having a part of yourself cordoned off from the rest of the world, and we also recognize the discomfort of having that barrier breached.

Singin’ in the Rain starts with a deception wrapped in comedic irony. Movie star Don Lockwood tells the story of his rise to fame to a radio reporter, giving the impression of a dignified, privileged childhood and a clear path to fame and fortune. What the audience sees undercuts his boasting.

The true story of Don and his friend Cosmo’s backstory plays out on screen as Don narrates. While he talks about having a classical education and performing in the finest theaters, we see him and Cosmo as children dancing for coins at the pool hall and playing a circuit of run-down vaudeville theaters.

 

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”Dignity. Always dignity.”

By showing us that Don is putting up a front, the movie makes him not only more relatable, but more intriguing. We want to know why he wants to deceive his fans about his true biography, while simultaneously understanding the desire to remake your identity and present yourself in the best possible light.

Revealing the deception to the audience gives them the best of both worlds: We see the glamorous, enviable star that Don has become while also seeing his bootstrappy, admirable rise from rags to riches.

Judy Hops in Zootopia finishes her first day with the Zootopia Police Department and comes home to a call from her parents. While trying to lie and tell them work lives up to her expectations, the deception falls apart when they see her uniform: She’s been put on meter maid duty.

Judy wants to project a confident, together persona to her parents. She’s hoping the reality of her job will catch up to her aspirations. But the bright orange vest gives her away, and her parents latch on to the problem of her present, which interferes with the projection she’s trying to show them.

These moments don’t always play a major role in the entire story, and sometimes can be a button moment or little splash of character to add color to what we’ve already seen. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, there’s a telling moment that re-contextualizes our previous understanding of the hero.

Indiana’s father refers to him as Junior throughout the film and when questioned about it reveals that his son’s true name is Henry Jones, Jr.

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”I like Indiana.” ”We named the dog Indiana.”

Not only does this reveal take the wind out of his sails, undercutting his heroic swagger with a wink just before the credits roll, but it also shows us an important fact about Indiana Jones: He’s a constructed persona. Like an author adopting a pen name, or a vigilante picking a superhero title, Henry Jones, Jr. wanted a name more befitting a part-time professor and full time extreme archaeologist.

These deceptions don’t just give us a window into the individual, but about how their core identity relates to the world around them.

Deceptions Reveal Values

At the beginning of Ghostbusters (2016), Dr. Erin Gilbert disowns her previous work in the field of the paranormal and tries to distance herself from the book she co-wrote with Abby Yates on ghosts, even when a copy of that book shows up in the hands of someone asking for help with an actual ghost.

Erin wants to secure tenure at Columbia University, and in order to portray herself as the kind of physicist she believes they want, she moves from omissions about her past to active deception. It even reaches the point where she tries to convince the dean of her university that an online video of her screaming in glee that “Ghosts are real!” isn’t actually her or real.

It helps the audience understand what’s happening because we know the whole truth. We just saw an actual ghost vomit on Erin. We believe ghosts are real, but we also believe why Erin wouldn’t want to own up to that yet.

At this point in the story, the respect of other scientists is still more important to her than scientific discovery. Her actions reflect her sense of values.

When she’s fired, carrying her things in a cardboard box, she riffs to the students and faculty she passes in the hall about how she’s only changing offices. The degree to which she needs to maintain the idea that she’s a serious, respected scientist is so great, that even in this moment of total failure, her nervous energy demands that she keep up appearances, despite the obviousness of the deception.

Another example of obvious deception comes at the end of The Godfather. Michael Corleone lies to his wife, Kay, saying that she’s allowed this one time to ask him a question about his business and he’ll answer honestly.

When she asks if he ordered the murder of his brother-in-law, he lies, saying he had nothing to do with it.

We know this is a lie. We saw him order multiple murders. We saw Carlo murdered.

This obvious lie combines with the famous shot of Kay looking back at Michael as the door closes to his office, shutting her out of his world, and shutting her off from his interior life.

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Definitely nothing fishy here, Kay.

At the beginning of the film, Michael made a statement of values to Kay after relaying a gruesome story of his father’s business to her: “That’s my family. That’s not me.” Now he leads that family, and his earlier honesty with Kay is only a memory.

Michael’s desire to protect his family doesn’t necessarily mean being honest with them. He sees his job as a powerful protector of those closest to him as one that requires him to be deceptive.

But it also shows how he values their trust. He wants Kay to trust him, so he deceives her into believing that he’s letting her into his confidence. He doesn’t just want his family to be safe, but for them to feel that he has their best interests at heart. To Michael, that doesn’t require transparency.

The family in Ordinary People are all actively engaging in layers of outward deception and self deception. Brothers Buck and Conrad have a boating accident where Conrad survives, but Buck drowns. The fallout from this death and Conrad’s subsequent suicide attempt reveals fractures within the family.

At a dinner party, Beth stops her husband, Calvin, from talking about Conrad entering therapy. She doesn’t want to reveal to their friends about the trouble they’ve been having at home. But even in his admission of Conrad’s therapy, Calvin downplays the seriousness, creating the deception that it’s just “to polish the rough edges.”

When Conrad meets with Dr. Berger for their initial therapy session, he doesn’t want to talk about what the real problems are. He says he wants to feel more in control, and that’s the only reason he’s agreed to see a therapist. Conrad’s problems with his parents and deep-seated survivor’s guilt aren’t even on the table, as far as he’s concerned.

Control. Looking to deal with the outward signs of turmoil instead of looking to the source. Even though we see how different Conrad is from his mother, Beth’s values and influence are right there in how Conrad initially wants to deal with his problems.

The tensions created by these deceptions boil over when the family tries to take a picture together.

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If this were set today, you can be certain Beth would post this with #blessed

Conrad and Beth refuse to be photographed together apart from everyone else. The act of taking a happy family photo together reinforces the layers of deception the family are trying to create, showing what’s behind the need to deceive. They want to show that they’re still a happy, united family. On some level they want to believe it, too.

They value the appearance of unity. That their home life is polished; no rough edges for others to see. But what we see of this family shows they’re not equally committed to the work it would take to bridge the gap between their outward projection of success and comfort and the inner feelings of love and connection required to make that outward projection honest.

In stark contrast, Su Li-zhen and Chow Mo-wan from In The Mood For Love deceive each other about their mutual attraction. Their relationship desperately wants to bloom like a flower poking through cracked concrete, but their values prevent it.

These two neighbors start off friendly enough, but after learning that their respective spouses are having an affair (together), the tone of their dynamic shifts. What starts as an attempt to role-play the affair and figure out what could have lead their significant others to stray turns into something else.

Their time together becomes more frequent. Intimacy develops. But it never directly replicates the painful deception that brought them together.

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Find someone who doesn’t look at you the way Su Li-zhen doesn’t look at Chow Mo-wan.

They tell themselves “We won’t be like them,” referring back to their adulterous spouses. It’s a deception. They believe they can consciously prevent romantic feelings from developing between them. They believe they should prevent romantic feelings from developing.

It shows that they want to value their marriages, even when they’ve been cheated on. That they value the approval of the people in their apartment building, especially the nosy families that they rent their rooms from.

They want to believe themselves to be superior to those who have wronged them, and that by denying themselves the love that so clearly displays itself in their scenes together, they are doing something admirable.

This clash between values and desires creates a conflict they need to navigate.

Deceptions Create Conflict

In a dramatic work, the purpose of these deceptions isn’t only to reveal character to the audience, but to create obstacles for the characters.

When a deception ties to a sense of stakes; when there’s something for the characters to win or lose due to their maintenance of the deception, that’s when you get conflict.

The show House, M.D. based itself not only on Sherlock Holmes, but on the idea that the answers to diagnosing confounding patients would usually be found by determining what information the patient omits or actively hides from the medical team.

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Sure, it’s a hell of a mindset to live with, but it was a theme with enough dramatic fuel for eight seasons.

It could be an omission about their history. An active deception to protect someone close to them or protect themselves from exposure. It could be an unacknowledged self-deception that needs to be overcome, healing the consciousness before healing the body.

This creates an active need to unravel and reveal these deceptions: the patients’ lives are in jeopardy. The stakes of the situation turn this deception from an interesting character detail into a problem that needed to be solved.

In the film The Third Man, Harry Lime lures his friend Holly Martins to Europe with a job offer. Harry has presented himself as a successful entrepreneur, but his apparent death leads Holly to uncover that Harry’s business was selling tainted medicine on the black market.

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Orson Welles never smiled in a way that didn’t look like he was pulling one over on you.

Two things combine to make this deception into a source of conflict:

  • Harry isn’t actually dead, but faked his death to avoid arrest.
  • His business of selling tainted medicine has killed children, and he hasn’t let being “dead” stop his business.

Given the sense of stakes created by these circumstances, Holly is faced with a choice: Go home and accept that his friend was a duplicitous war profiteer, or help bring him to justice. The conflict evolves based on Holly’s choice to stay and bring Harry’s deceptions to light.

Vincent Freeman in GATTACA has one wish: To become an astronaut. However, he was born in a not-too-distant future where genetic engineering is the norm for children, and Vincent was conceived naturally. In this world, Vincent’s high probability of disease and early death prevent him from pursuing his dream, or anything close to it (as genetic discrimination is casual and common).

Vincent’s deception comes when he meets Jerome, a genetically-engineered former athlete willing to donate blood, urine, and tissue samples to Vincent and allow him to pass as Jerome in order to apply for astronaut training.

Because of the heavy punishment for this kind of identity theft, and the ease with which it could be discovered (since even an eyelash could reveal Vincent’s true identity), this creates conflict every time he goes to work.

This conflict is pushed forward because Vincent’s DNA is recovered from a crime scene at the Gattaca Aerospace Corporation. A flight director was murdered, and while nobody believes “Jerome” did it, Vincent knows that he’s now the prime suspect. One more slip up could cost him his dream and his freedom.

It’s not just protagonists who deal with these kind of weighty deceptions. In The Matrix, the ally/antagonist Cypher works to deceive the rest of his crew on the Nebuchadnezzar and deliver Morpheus to the machines in exchange for having his mind wiped and his body re-inserted into the Matrix.

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To be fair, that looks a lot better than Tasty Wheat.

Cypher’s nostalgia for life in the Matrix as opposed to the real world could be an interesting expression of character; a way to show not everybody likes having their mind freed and being thrust into the human resistance.

What creates conflict is the deception driven by this desire. He kills members of his crew and places all of their lives in danger in order to double cross them. He pretends to be working with them while slowly building toward the point where he has no choice but to reveal his duplicity and hope to receive his reward.

What makes this deception intriguing beyond the conflict it creates is the understanding that Cypher’s reward is a form of self deception.

It speaks to his values when he says the cliché “Ignorance is bliss,” and the nature of his deception shows how deeply committed he is to that notion. The lives of other people are nothing to him compared to his own ignorant comfort.

And one more thing…

Returning to Stephens-Davidowitz’s article for a moment:

Any time you are feeling down about your life after lurking on Facebook, go to Google and start typing stuff into the search box. Google’s autocomplete will tell you the searches other people are making. Type in “I always ” and you may see the suggestion, based on other people’s searches, “I always feel tired” or “I always have diarrhea.” This can offer a stark contrast to social media, where everybody “always” seems to be on a Caribbean vacation.

As our lives increasingly move online, I propose a new self-help mantra for the 21st century, courtesy of big data: Don’t compare your Google searches with other people’s Facebook posts.

It’s worth remembering the actual point of this article as well: Don’t compare yourself to what you see of others.

This is a needed mantra for writers, who are prone to imposter syndrome and needing the occasional pep talk.

Be mindful of the fact that when you look at the work of others, you’re only seeing the polished, produced material.

You’re not seeing those rough edges. You’re seeing the Instagram version of their #writerlife. You don’t get to see the hidden basement full of unsuccessful Ripley Clones.

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I mean this as a metaphor. I don’t think any writers actually have this in their basement. Probably.

Rating your unfinished work too heavily against the produced work of other writers isn’t fair to you. It’s a form of self-deception.

Even the most successful writer starts with a blank page. Everybody deletes.

So don’t compare your first draft to Zootopia.

Categories
longread

Elsewhere: Endings are the new beginnings

Recently posted: A post I wrote for Writer Emergency Pack about the building blocks of a strong ending.

It’s a deep dive, similar to my previous Writer’s Guide to Unforgettable Villains, so you might want to grab some coffee first.

Categories
longread

Recently Posted: A Writer’s Guide To Unforgettable Villains

I recently wrote an article called A Writer’s Guide To Unforgettable Villains for John August’s Writer Emergency Pack site.

If you’d like to learn more about ways to craft a strong, well-defined villain, and get a laundry list of great examples, give it a read!