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.”

 

Heavy Clicky Touchy Feely

I ponied up the money for a mechanical keyboard.

I get it. People buy in, hook, line, and sinker to this craze the way marketing used to tell kids shoes would make you run faster and jump higher.

But it’s genuinely pleasant.

The Matias Laptop Pro for Mac

Does having a nice keyboard make me a better writer? Not in and of itself.

But does having a nice keyboard make me feel like my time spent writing is more enjoyable, encouraging me to favor this activity over other ways to spend my time? You bet!

The only thing that helps a person work on their craft is time and deliberate practice. You could argue any tool that helps create those conditions has some degree of positive impact.

But there’s also the nostalgia.

It reminds me of that feeling of the first time I learned how to type, working on a Commodore 64 in my parents’ living room. The chunkiness of the keys. The orange glow of the text when I fired up the word processor to do a research paper on Mars. The satisfying click as I made things happen on screen while following along with one of the library books that said they would teach me how to program in BASIC (Ron Howard Voice: “They did not.”)

It’s not that I wish that the computer I was using had the same limited capabilities as that old machine. What I wanted from purchasing a mechanical keyboard was comfort and joy.

There’s a strong sensory connection between the tactile experience of the keyboard and the sensation of enthusiastically discovering something new. An attempt to trigger those beginner’s mind feelings, even after years and years of using a computer.

Because there’s still so much to learn.

But even without any guarantee of that, I can say for certain that sitting down to type feels more joyful. It’s no longer just the pleasure of actually taking time to write something down and work out my ideas. There’s a rhythm to the keys that keeps me motivated just as much as any well-crafted writing playlist.

Hamilton GIF 'Why do you write like you're running out of time?'
Because he got a clicky mechanical keyboard, of course.

It’s a healthy reminder that we’re not just content-creation algorithms, trying to spit out data for dopamine rewards. There should be joy in the process. An awareness and appreciation for not just our ideas, but the tools we use to make them tangible.

Little touches can make a world of difference, like the right coffee mug.

My favorite breakfast place in the entire United States is the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, MA. If you’re familiar with the love Leslie Knope has for J.J.’s Diner, you have a general idea of how much I rave about this place.

Leslie Knope: 'Why would anybody ever eat anything besides breakfast food?'

On my family’s most recent trip out to the east coast, I made sure that I took home a mug from Deluxe Town, because it is the perfect mug.

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This isn’t just nostalgia for the countless brunches over sour cream waffles or their perfectly tender and juicy in-house corned beef hash.

There’s a satisfying weight to the mug. It doesn’t make coffee taste better, but it makes the act of lifting the mug up to my lips feel substantial. You pay attention to the feeling in your hand and your arm as you raise it up.

You can’t ignore this mug. It’s not a paper cup. It’s not a cheap ceramic nothing. You are aware that you are drinking a good cup of coffee (so long as you put some good coffee in it).

Damn Good

If I appreciate my tools, the objects I surround myself with, they help me to remain present in time and space with them.

It’s not about the price tag. This isn’t a call for unchecked consumption, or for an endless deep dive into the world of The Best X You Can Buy listicles.

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It’s a call to look for those objects and moments you interact with that matter. To consider how best to appreciate the tools of your trade.

What do you touch every day? Do you pay attention to it? Does it matter? Should it matter more?

When you are asked to give more and more of your mental energy and presence to things happening away from where you are, what things help anchor you? What objects can you use to keep yourself from drifting too far away, or getting lost down rabbit holes?

I am drinking this coffee. I am typing these words. I am here.

Let’s Talk About Cats

Picture a cat.

Now picture that cat in your home, somewhere near you.

What do you imagine that cat doing?

Don’t overthink it. Whatever immediately came to mind when I said to imagine a cat in the room with you works fine.

Got it?

So, what did you imagine?

Was it something you’ve seen a cat do before? Chase a laser pointer? Stare out a window at some birds? Knock something off a table? Curl up and purr in your lap?

Remember that. Keep your imaginary cat in the back of your mind for a few minutes.


Recently, my daughter looked down at our lazy, 13-year-old cat lounging on the carpet.

“When’s Luna gonna get bigger?”

I paused. “She’s already fully grown. That’s as big as she gets.”

Sprout started to pout. “So I’m never gonna get to ride her‽”

I didn’t see that one coming.

What Sprout did just then? That was beginner’s mind in action.


You see a cat, or you imagine a cat, and your experiences tell you about things that cats do. They tell you purposes cats have. You catalog and categorize the things you see in the world around you.

This thing is a cat. This thing is like a cat. This thing is not a cat.

Time passes. More things make their way into the matrix of your memory. All thoroughly cross-referenced and orderly.

And that’s why you didn’t consider riding your imaginary cat.

You have your reasons, and they’re good reasons. They’re true. It would be foolish to try and actually ride a housecat.

But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an imaginary possibility.


I want to try to break down how Sprout came to this moment. My guess is she had some combination of these thoughts (not necessarily in this order):

  1. There’s Luna.

  2. I love my cat so much, I can’t handle it.

  3. I am small, and so is Luna.

  4. I am growing.

  5. Is Luna growing? Ask a grown up.

  6. I can ride animals, like that time I rode Oreo the pony.

  7. If Luna was bigger, I could ride her!

  8. When will Luna be big enough for me to ride? Ask a grown up!

Her creative process for this idea probably involved memories, established facts, and questions about the unknown.

It’s unlikely she’s seen anyone riding a cat, so that’s a novel element. It’s an aspect of the unknown.

It's just a picture of He-Man on Battle Cat.
I am absolutely certain Sprout has never watched He-Man in any form, so I’m ruling out this as an influence.

However, that element of the unknown is an extension of the known. She’s not just creating this possibility out of nowhere.


So why am I doing a deep dive on two sentences from my daughter, besides the fact that they made me laugh really hard?

What I saw in her in that moment was a piece of the larger creative process: The desire to create something that does not currently exist, except in the mind.

It reminded me of the beginning of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The more we learn about an idea, or a process, or an art form, the more it can constrict our thinking. That which has already been proven, or has already been done, suggests boundaries for what can still be learned or done.

It limits the questions you ask, or the solutions you attempt.

While I can’t deny there is value to be had in deep study of anything you want to work with, be it a creative medium, a scientific field, or any job with its set of processes and requirements, adhering to strongly to “the way things are done” can stifle novel solutions.

The best cinematic expression I’ve seen of this comes from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. While training on Dagobah, Luke whines to Yoda about how he couldn’t possibly lift an X-Wing using the Force. He says that even though he can lift rocks with it, an X-Wing is much heavier.

Luke knows the weight of objects, and he knows his capacity to physically lift objects. He applies these rules to how he thinks the Force works.

And Yoda attempts to convince him that his strict adherence to just these facts isn’t helping him.

Yoda: 'You must unlearn what you have learned.'

In this example, Yoda lifts the X-Wing out of the swamp using the Force to make a point: This is something new to you that you don’t yet understand. It isn’t a muscle. It doesn’t use your body. You can’t hold onto the same rules you learned from interacting with heavy objects using your body.


There’s a method to test and explore ideas. To not feel like everything is already decided for you, or that what you already know is an impenetrable wall, halting your progress.

Anchor your ideas in what you know, but test those boundaries of possibility. Ask questions, the way Sprout did.

Think about what happens if something you see as a hard rule could bend, just a little.

Then chase that notion.

It’s mental jujitsu. Use the weight of the knowledge you already have against itself, and try to swing it to the side to see if it will make way for something unexpected.

To be clear: I do not have all the answers to this, or a simple, listicle-friendly process for people to follow. It’s something I wrestle with regularly, too.

What I do know is that some ideas are less solid and impenetrable than they seem, and it’s important to be able to test your ideas to understand them as they truly are.

It does you no favors to look at a suggestion and see it as a rule, or vice-versa, like the difference between a stop sign and a yield.


One caveat: This doesn’t mean that all ideas formed in this Beginner’s Mind state are great ideas.

I can’t tell you how many times since having this conversation with Sprout that I’ve had to stop her from straddling Luna in preparation to actually try to ride the cat.

Cutting with The Muppets

We ran into a problem while rehearsing for the table read of Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Ida Walker: The read-through ran longer than the block of studio time we had reserved for the recording.

The traditional rule estimates that one screenplay page equals one minute of screen time. Whether or not you believe that measurement, you can chuck the ratio out the window when someone needs to read the action and description lines out loud.

I needed to make cuts, and there was one more restriction. These had to be straight cuts: No additions or substitutions.

(I was trying to be mindful of school resources since I’d already printed copies of the scripts for the actors once.)

As I sat down with a pencil and a copy of the script, I lost some of my nerve. The revision I did before handing the script over to actors already cut a number of pages. How was I supposed to know what else to trim?

That’s when my daughter’s obsession with The Muppets helped me get over my uncertainty.

Nearly every time we get into the car, she asks “Can we listen to the Muppet music?” I grew up on the Muppets, and all things Jim Henson, so I’m totally fine indulging her obsession.

The film’s soundtrack includes an extended cut of the villainous Tex Richman’s rap “Let’s Talk About Me,” where he explains how rich, powerful, and awesome he is to the Muppets.

It’s great. Academy Award Winner Chris Cooper chews the scenery so hard, you want to offer him a Tums. You should listen to it.

The difference with the film version? The soundtrack cut features an operatic bridge:

I recall a heartbreaking story
About my own tenth birthday party
Should’ve been a glorious day for me
I’d have been happy as can be
But the Muppets were there
To put on a show
They started to dance
They were telling their jokes
I didn’t laugh
I didn’t know how
Then my friends
They all turned around
And they laughed at me
They laughed at me
I hate you, Muppets so

It provides an explanation for why the character needs to say “Maniacal laugh” to his henchmen instead of laughing himself. It gives a motivation for why he buys the Muppet Studio. It informs why he’s so cruel to the Muppets. And it sets up the joke at the end of the movie where Gonzo hits him with a bowling ball and he learns how to laugh.

Seems necessary, right?

But without that verse, we can still understand why he buys the studio (he wants to drill for oil), and why he’s cruel to the Muppets (he’s an evil oil barron that wants to drill for oil).

The inability to laugh is funny even without an explanation, and the repeated action itself sets up the joke for when a comical concussion knocks some laughter into him.

Everything doesn’t need to be explained in full.

Humans are narrative-making creatures. We try to fill in the gaps and find sense in events. Allowing for small omissions understands this feature of human thinking and respects the audience.

Everybody writes Tex Bridges.

You don’t trust that people will understand a strange choice you made. You worry that something will cause your reader or audience to bump, so you try to solve a problem that hasn’t happened yet. You love the backstory you’ve come up with for a character and think everybody else will love it, too.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a Tex Bridge, but there’s also nothing wrong with cutting it and trusting your narrative momentum.

So I thought about Tex Richman, and looked for the places in my script that felt like that bridge: Places that might be entertaining, but over-explained something that the audience could infer from everything else.

In Praise of Bash

A closer look at a supporting player in GLOW

The Netflix cast and production team of the series GLOW have created some layered, dimensional characters with efficiency and humor. The show’s deep bench gives every cast member at least one moment in the spotlight over the first season’s ten episodes.

For the moment, I want to single out Bash, played by Chris Lowell.

Why Bash?

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Is it missing the point when talking about a show focused on women’s wrestling with so many standout female performances to turn my attention to one of the male leads?

Maybe. But this isn’t just about him.

In fact, that’s the point I want to make about Bash’s character: This story isn’t about him.

He says that Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling is his idea, and he maintains that he wants to make sure the execution matches his initial premise.

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With the plot elements involved, this could easily have been Bash’s story: The highs and lows of a trust-fund goofball who finds purpose by putting aside his selfish antics and maturing as he builds a tv show.

But that’s not this show’s story.

Bash is a supporting member of the cast, not only by the entertainment awards definition, but in how supportive he is of the other characters.

Like Max in Fury Road or Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman, Bash is an example of how to depict a man being supportive of a woman or group of women. He’s another reminder that gender dynamics in storytelling aren’t a zero sum game.

The Heel-Face Turn

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When we first meet Sebastian “Bash” Howard, he’s doing all the things that would lead us to believe he’s going to be an antagonist or obstacle in the vein of a classic 80s villain.

  • He showed up in a helicopter, suggesting he’s totally out of touch with the other characters who are desperate for work.
  • He’s telling a personal anecdote about Ronald Reagan, further aligning himself with conservative, monied interests in a series focusing on a diverse group of underdogs.
  • He interrupts his introduction to ask that he be called by a nickname that he probably gave to himself.
  • He cancels rehearsal to invite everyone to a party at his mansion, which features an actual Lichtenstein and a working robot with a secret drug compartment.

It’s a clever ploy to play off of the audience’s expectations based on both Bash’s behavior and our genre savvy. This makes his sudden turn that much more satisfying.

What Bash Does for the Athletes

At the rehearsal, Bash listened to the women read through a script written by the director, Sam Sylvia, that featured a post-apocalyptic setting and roving gangs of women fighting for the right to breed with the last surviving man on Earth. The read-through goes unenthusiastically as the performers grapple with a thin sci-fi narrative held together by Sam’s sexual fantasies.

Bash confronts Sam about this, saying that when he asked for a different kind of wrestling show, this isn’t what he had in mind:

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Bash invites the women up to his costume room and tells them to explore it and try things on.

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Bash is inviting these women to take an active role in the construction of the narrative they’re going to play out. He talks about Sam’s script being too complicated, and he wants to see something still heightened and fantastic, but grounded in some aspect of the women themselves.

Let me be clear: Bash is not doing this just because he has a desire to empower these athletes. His suggestions involve leveraging regressive stereotypes that he justifies by saying that they need to play to the viewpoint of the audience.

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Bash wants to make sure you know what eyes are.

Ethnicities are shifted or amalgamated. Tammé, whose son goes to Stanford, gets re-christened as Welfare Queen. Everything is done to better label these women according to a generalized white, male gaze instead of Sam’s hyper-sexualized, exploitation film mindset.

And this is where it gets more complicated.

Early in this sequence of scenes, Bash starts speaking with Carmen, who will eventually take on the character Machu Picchu. Sam has cast her as the villainous Ogress, but Bash takes one look at her and sees her smile. He knows she’s not right to play a heel, and helps her find an identity more suited to who she really is.

And while so many of these wrestling aliases are created based on stereotypes, that initial spark kindles something in the women. A “So this is how you see me?” anger helps them find their enthusiasm for the entire project. It unlocks and directs a layer of rage and creativity.

Going off of this setup, one of the most memorable scenes of the entire season comes when Cherry and Tammé convince their tag team opponents to dress in Ku Klux Klan costumes. Cherry and Tammé are very aware of how their roles as Welfare Queen and Junk Chain have attached stereotypes that will play negatively to the audience. So they find a way to turn themselves into the heroes of the match.

They have a degree of control over the narrative, and they’re trying to leverage what they think the audience sees.

Aside from setting some key points about the world of wrestling and its expectations, Bash also has several direct interactions that support the wrestlers.

In working with Carmen throughout the season’s arc, he helps her to build her confidence and live up to the reputation her family’s wrestling dynasty.

Bash sits with Carmen in the parking lot while an EMT confirms that she’s had a panic attack after she runs from the ring at an early match. He recognizes how important this is to her, and wants to be supportive.

When she starts to feel the fear again at a match being taped live for the pilot of their tv show, one of the things that helps her find her strength is Bash, acting as the ringside announcer, turning her anxiety into part of her character.

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And when she pulls through and wins her match, Bash is one of the primary focuses of the camera. His enthusiasm for her victory reminds us that he didn’t just invest money in this wrestling show, but that he truly wants to see these athletes succeed.

Speaking of money, at a key moment when Bash’s mother cuts him off, everything is in danger of falling apart. The team needs to find the money to secure a venue for their live taping of a pilot episode.

Bash finds a solution, but he can’t do it alone.

Bash brings the women to crash his mother’s fundraising event for Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. He pretends that they’re from an organization called Wrestlers Against Drugs, and interrupts his introductory toast of his mother to step aside and let the women tell improvised stories to the wealthy donors.

The key here is that Bash isn’t the one making the big speech to get the money and save the day. He’s offering these women the opportunity to succeed on their own merits. He creates space for them to succeed where he failed, and he trusts that they’re capable.

And the women do not disappoint, coming up with stories of drug addiction and salvation through wrestling so compelling that the donations pile up, and even Bash’s mom sees that her son has partnered with some amazing women.

What This Means to Bash

But Bash isn’t just some Yuppie Yoda, helping women find their inner power through the drama and athleticism of professional wrestling. He gets something out of all this, too.

There’s this one scene near the end, and it’s why I focused so much on Bash after this first viewing of the show.

As everything comes together at the last minute, Ruth tells Bash that he needs to act as their announcer for the live taping of their matches. Bash says he was born for this:

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While everyone’s getting ready for their on-camera debut in the ring, Bash gets a quiet moment while he prepares.

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Bash has spent a lot of time before this point helping other characters find strength and express themselves. We’re shown this one moment that shows him stepping in to character.

It’s a suggestion that Bash, too, feels that the spectacle allows him to re-craft his identity; to tap into something inside himself that normally stayed buried.

How To Show Support

GLOW is a show mainly populated by women, but unlike Sam’s script, there’s not a lack of men involved. Along with the recurring characters of Sam and Bash, several other men play a role in the story.

When characters are dimensional, treated with respect and dignity, and given solid, selfish motivations, there’s room for everyone.

Bash is an example of a well written ally. He’s imperfect, and his faults and mistakes provide conflict for the story. But his desire to help others comes from an expressed and understood need to fulfill his own goal.

That’s a key to strong supporting characters: They don’t know they’re a sidekick. Somehow their actions supporting the protagonist(s) should fulfill whatever desire drives them in the version of the story where they’re the lead.

The opening scene of the series features Ruth on an audition for the role of a secretary who interrupts her boss in the middle of a dramatic monologue to say his wife is on the phone. It’s making a point about the dearth of good roles available to women, and does so by highlighting an audition for a minor supporting character.

It highlights not only why Ruth and the other women of GLOW would latch on to the opportunity to take charge of their stories and shape this wrestling program to give themselves an opportunity to shine, and it also highlights what happens when writers create characters who act as punctuation.

Somebody has to come read for the role of the Nameless Interrupting Secretary. Somebody has to hope that they’ll get that three line part, because they’ve got rent to pay. Somebody spent years training themselves and honing their craft to prepare themselves to be on camera.

Does it honor that person’s effort to give them so little to do?

Does it show respect to the people who actually inhabit these positions in real life to depict them as functions of someone else’s story?

The story as a whole is richer from making sure every role feels lived in. Every person feels true, and not just a plot device.

New Words, New Perspective

When something appears more than once in a story, be it an object, a dramatic situation, or a line of dialogue, you take notice. Repetition cues the audience to pay attention.

In Disney’s Moana, the title character has a repeated line of dialogue used in different contexts:

”I am Moana of Motunui. You will board my boat, sail across the sea, and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

The Words Themselves

Let’s break it apart and look at the construction.

The first sentence makes a declarative statement of identity, saying her individual name and where she comes from. Because of how closely her people identify with Motunui, saying she is “of Motunui” stands both for the location and the people who live there.

The second sentence gives a directive to the listener, outlining the journey ahead and clearly stating the actions that will lead to Moana’s goal.

Notice how the sentence structure creates not only a sense that there are numerous steps, but lays out three stages that fit into a rough outline of the three-act structure of the movie.

  1. “board my boat” – Crossing a threshold into a new world. For Moana, it’s the new world of the open ocean. In the case of Maui, crossing a threshold into the new role of becoming a mentor and ally to Moana (it’s her boat).
  2. “sail across the sea” – The majority of the film’s second act takes place at sea, moving from place to place. Note the use of the word sail. The second act also focuses on instilling in Moana the tools she needs to navigate on the open ocean.
  3. “restore the heart of Te Fiti” – The ultimate goal of the story. Returning Te Fiti’s heart will restore health to the natural world.

Put these together and you have a line of dialogue that fuses a clear statement of identity with a preview of the journey ahead.

Introducing the Words

Moana’s Gramma Tala gives her these words as her mission when she sends Moana off the island to find Maui. Tala specifically says to repeat those words after grabbing Maui by the ear to make him listen to her.

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C’mon, Moana. You’re a Disney protagonist. Did you really think you’d finish this story with your mom and dad AND grandmother all surviving?
By receiving these words from Tala, it roots the message in a connection to her family. While she must travel without them, carrying the words with her brings her family along in spirit.

Setting up this mission statement as a task to deliver to Maui suggests to Moana that she can’t make this journey alone. She’ll need help and guidance. Tala knows sending Moana straight to Te Fiti on her own would be a reckless suggestion for an untrained sailor.

Phrasing the entire scope of the quest as a single task, making it seem like only the next action she should take, breaks down a big adventure into smaller, attainable goals.

Also, having seen Gramma Tala tell the story of Maui stealing the heart of Te Fiti, we know she’s aware that directing these words at Maui offer him a chance at redemption. Presented with the opportunity to correct a misdeed, he may see the value in joining the quest.

The First (Several) Repetitions

After Moana crosses beyond the reef surrounding her island and enters the open ocean, she repeats the words to herself.

During the quick cuts of this sequence, Moana faces her first few modest trials: Keeping her bearings, keeping awake, and keeping control of her boat.

The repetitions reinforce that her desire to accomplish her goal is stronger than her limitations as a sailor or the obstacles she initially encounters.

She’s also using this time to rehearse the words for when she meets Maui. Showing the act of rehearsing helps the audience remember the exact phrase, and prepares us for when things don’t go as planned.

Delivering the Words to Maui

When she reaches Maui’s island, after her boat crashes on shore, her initial introduction to Maui is intimidating and confusing.

He reveals himself by lifting her boat over his head and startling her. She’s getting off on a bad foot, and Maui keeps the power dynamic in his favor, blocking and stalling her prepared statement.

Moana: Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, I am Moana —

Maui: Hero of men.

Moana: What?

Maui: It’s actually Maui, shapeshifter, demigod of the wind and sea, hero of men. I interrupted. From the top! Hero of men. Go.

Moana: I am Moana —

Maui: Sorry sorry sorry. And women. Men and women. Both. All! Not a guy/girl thing. Maui is a hero to all. You’re doing great.

Instead of listening to her and responding to her directive, he interrupts repeatedly, trying to reinforce his talking points about himself.

When Moana finally takes control of the conversation, grabs him by the ear, and delivers the words with their full force, he’s taken aback.

Maui thought he was everybody’s hero, and she’s telling him that he needs to atone for stealing the heart of Te Fiti.

So he reacts to this new perspective in the way that seems most natural and appropriate to him: Distracting Moana with a song about himself and stealing her boat.

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I don’t know what we did to deserve a collaboration between Alexander Hamilton and The Rock, but it exists and we are better for it.
Moana has arrived at her destination and delivered the message, but she hasn’t yet proven to Maui why he should listen to that message. She’s a stranger, and he hasn’t learned why it’s important that she’s Moana of Motunui.

Once More With Feeling

After escaping from the cave that Maui locked her in and getting back to the boat (with an assist from the Ocean), Moana tries to repeat the words again.

Maui interrupts her by throwing her back off the boat. When that doesn’t work, he tries to swim away (only to have the Ocean carry him back.

Realizing that the Ocean wants to keep these two together and won’t take no for an answer, Maui makes the decision to listen to the words Moana’s brought for him. Her actions and determination shift the balance of power in their conversation.

Maui re-starts the phrase for her and allows her to finish. As he joins in the repetition of the mission statement, Maui reluctantly agrees to the journey.

The Words Lose Their Power

The mission statement doesn’t make another appearance until the point where it appears that all is lost.

After an attempt to reach Te Fiti ends with Te Ka damaging both Maui’s fish hook and Moana’s boat, Maui loses faith in their ability to complete their journey.

Maui prepares to leave, preferring to protect his damaged fish hook and its magical powers than help Moana make another attempt to get past Te Ka and return the heart. Moana repeats her initial imperative to Maui. She tries to remind him of the mission so that he won’t abandon her.

But her delivery is weakened by fear and desperation. It lacks the fire it had before when it was a driving force.

The words that her mentor figure gave to her feel spent. They’ve carried her as far as they can.

To convince Moana to change her perspective, she must feel the failure of her old perspective. To prepare the audience for the coming transformation of these words, they must see that the old words are ready to be discarded.

Changing the Words

In comes the spirit of Gramma Tala, appearing to Moana and coaxing her into the realization that even without Maui, all hope isn’t lost. And here’s where Moana flips the script (emphasis mine):

“I am Moana of Motunui. Aboard my boat, I will sail across the sea and restore the heart of Te Fiti.”

Changing a few words changes the entire meaning of the line. This is no longer an imperative directed toward Maui. It’s a declarative statement of identity and purpose.

And it’s not just words, but actions that reinforce the shift in perspective. As she says the new variation on these words, the audience sees her repair her boat and prepare to make another run at Te Ka alone, relying on her newly acquired skills and her belief in herself.

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I came here to wreck lava monsters and chew bubble gum, and I’m all out of gum.
We see the change as we hear the changed words.

Arc Words

Arc words are repeated phrases spaced out at key points in a story that show how a theme relates to the external actions and internal, psychological and emotional, changes within a character.

The words stay mostly the same so that the audience can see how different contexts, deliveries, or slight alterations of the text reveal changes in the characters speaking these words.

But these can’t be small changes. A character change worthy of this much repetition and focus needs to be deeply wedded to an essential philosophical payload in the story.

The Words Carry the Theme

The transformation Moana makes with these arc words plays into the larger theme of the film: Know Who You Are.

  • Moana’s father, Chief Tui, makes a point about how the island of Motunui is Moana’s identity, and that the repetition of daily life defines who the people on this island are.
  • Gramma Tala repeats to Moana that the people on Motunui have forgotten who they are: They were not meant to settle on one island. They are descended from voyagers.
  • Maui defines himself by the tattoos showing off his previous bold actions, but also repeatedly says that he’s nothing without his magical fish hook. This drives his actions throughout.
  • Te Fiti forgets who she was after the theft of her heart. This turned her into the antagonist Te Ka, and it was only when Moana recognized Te Ka’s true self that she was able to end the conflict.
  • Even the antagonist Tamatoa sings a song about identity. “Shiny” is all about creating an external image, and how it doesn’t matter what’s on the inside (the counterpoint to Moana’s journey and the message of Gramma Tala)

Moana was once a child, being pushed toward action by the opposing forces of her father and Gramma Tala. When she left Motunui, it was initially to give in to that external push from Gramma Tala, and her agreement with Tala’s opinion of the best way to save the people of Motunui from their island’s blight.

Moana’s repetition of the words Gramma Tala spoke to her show how that motivation still carries her forward as she learns new skills and conquers her fears on the quest to restore balance to the world.

However, it’s not until she puts these skills to the test and decides to rely on herself that she’s able to succeed and complete her journey.

She needs to make a clear statement about who she believes she is, and not just reflect back one of her mentor’s viewpoints.

And the audience recognizes this when the familiar words change.

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.