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Recently I re-watched the 2004 movie Garden State, written, directed, and starred in by Zach Braff of Scrubs fame. I hadn’t seen it for years, and hadn’t remembered a lot about it except that I had enjoyed it a lot. Seeing it again, my enjoyment was confirmed, but I realized why it was hard to remember much of anything about it: it doesn’t seem to have a plot.

The movie starts by introducing Andrew. A plane is going down, and everyone on the plane is screaming and crying and praying except for Andrew, who looks kind of distracted and tired. The snack cart tumbles down the aisle toward us. Andrew adjusts the little airflow thing above his seat. We think, what the f*ck is wrong with this guy?

That question looms large for most of the movie, soon accompanied by is he ever going to pull himself out of this zombie existence? It’s a strangely riveting question, and it takes a very long time for the answer to develop. Whether or not he’s going to be able to emerge and actually start feeling something–and what will happen to him if he does–makes up a story arc that takes us from the very first moment of the movie to the very last. But a single story arc doesn’t generally keep us interested for that long if there aren’t smaller-scale things to interest us along the way.

In this case, the smaller-scale things are what I would describe as gradually escalating weirdness–weirdness that in some ways gets more comforting as it gets stranger. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that such an approach could possibly be adequate to keep interest and enjoyment up in a movie, but (at least for me), boy does it. I think the “comforting” part is important, too: weirdness for its own sake, or disturbing weirdness, wouldn’t serve the same purpose at all.

One thing the movie does marvelously and uses to contribute to this gradually increasing weirdness is introduce characters, one after the other, who are sharply defined and immediately engaging–and for the most part these are throwaway characters, people who delight us in three minutes of screen time and then are gone. From Kenny the obnoxious-partier-turned-policeman to the Medieval Times knight who’s dating his friend’s mother to the guy whose job is to make sure no one interferes with a vast chasm hidden in a junkyard, and on and on. Watching this movie, you get the idea that the world is populated with strange and fascinating people, places and moments, all of which keep getting stranger and more fascinating the more you look around. And this process of gradually escalating weirdness, while it’s just plain fun, also seems to bring us along on Andrew’s journey of waking up. The world seems more and more alive as the movie progresses.

So there is a plot, although a strange one. It helps significantly that we slowly get a series of unexpected revelations about why Andrew is the way he is in the first place, so that the same plot is simultaneously going backwards to the source and forwards to how things turn out.

The more I consider the structure of this movie, the more annoyed I am at Zach Braff. He’s already quite a good actor: is it really necessary for him to horn in on my favorite art (writing), especially in such an effective way?

My guess is that Braff was not trying to follow prescribed principles of story structure, but rather only his own passions and interests. I could be wrong: maybe there’s a way to actually plan a movie like this by thinking about three-act structure and story arcs and scene and sequel and other techniques. Certainly any number of magnificent stories have been written with those principles in mind. Ultimately, though, the life in the story seems to come from a marvelous tension between pain and joy, between turning away and leaping in.

I saw “Rango” this weekend with my kids, an entertaining Western about a misplaced chameleon lizard and a town drying up in the Mohave desert.  Visually, the movie is superb, the dialogue is awesome, the jokes are funny…but both my husband and I found ourselves getting bored in the middle. Despite it’s excellence in many ways, the second act flagged.  Why is that, I wondered?There are lots of ways to structure a story, but if you want your story to move, you’re going to want to pay attention to the old protagonist + antagonist + conflict + stakes formula.  I think “Rango” has problems in it’s second act with every element of this formula.  [Spoiler Warning!  Lots of spoilers ahead….]  Here’s how it breaks down.

The first act sets up our character as a likable chameleon, both literally and metaphorically, as he has a thespian’s ability and joy in mimicry.  And this section moves well.  Our protag is lonely, but creative, longing for connection, but with little real-life experience. Other characters arrive in a predictable but enjoyable fashion to complicate things.  Indeed, “Rango” uses tropes and stock story elements like an expert card shark dealing from a well worn deck.  The Feisty Heroine, the Dirty Politician, the Accidental Hero, the Native American Tracker, etc., all present and accounted for, self-consciously so.  But this if fine.  “Rango” is endlessly surprising in it’s twists on the the known.

But, as I said, the the story engine, that protag-antag-conflict-stakes thing, is working well in this first act.  After the quick character set up and his internal conflict (lonliness), Rango is tossed into the desert and comes face to face with a big hawk.  Clear antagonist, high stakes, this part of the story moves.  As does Rango.  But even once the hawk is vanquished, Thirst sets in as the antagonist, and Rango staggers towards the rumored town seeking relief.

Enter Ms. Beans, the romantic sub-plot, and enter the Mystery: a rush of water where there should be none.  Rango arrives in Dirt, your classic Western town, portrayed with tremendous visual style, and Rango takes his first non-reactive action: he decides to reinvent himself as a wild-west gunslinger of the toughest kind.  The story has arrived.

But just as the story is set up, the story engine slows down.

The first problem the second act struggles with is the vague protagonist.  Rango himself identifies this problem in the first few minutes of the story, which is why he decides later to reinvent himself.  He knows a vague protagonist makes for a weak story.  But still, for most of the story, Rango is a largely reactive hero, only occasionally taking action on his own.  When he does, it’s great, but part of his character’s appeal is that crazy things happen to him, which can be fun, but doesn’t add fuel to the story engine.  A hero that takes actions, figures things out, does stuff,  gives direction and energy to the story.  A reactive hero, not so much.  It isn’t insurmountable: it’s part of Rango’s struggle.  But it doesn’t help the story move.

If that were the only problem, it would probably still work, but there’s more.  The second problem in the second act is a shifting, even at times missing, antagonist.  I already mentioned the Rango-opposing forces of loneliness, then the hawk, then thirst.  But once Rango gets to town, who is the bad guy?  Is there a bad guy?  What is blocking Rango from what he desires? There is a vague sense of trouble brewing because Rango is pretending to be something he is not, and there’s the missing water, but what exactly is the force or person, internal or external, that is working against our hero?  It’s hard to drive the Conflict Engine when we don’t know who the hero is up against.  What is he working towards and what is stopping him?  it’s all muddy in this second act.  The moles step up as a temporary antagonist, but it feels like a straw man because it is.  Finally the Mayor is revealed, unsurprisingly, as the real bad guy, fulfilling the trope, but it isn’t until Jake the Snake shows up in the third act that we have a clear and present Bad Guy for Rango to tangle with.

With no clear antagonist, the conflict shifts.  He’s thirsty, he wants to be liked, he wants to find the water so everyone will like him, but it all feels like a play, because for him, it is.  And what exactly are the stakes?  The stakes for the town are clear: no water, everyone leaves or dies.  But Rango walked into town, he could walk back out.  The stakes don’t feel that personal to him, not yet.

Weak protagonist, shifting/missing antagonist, muddy conflict, low stakes=me looking at my watch about half-way through.  There just isn’t a drive pulling me through the story in this section.

In addition, it’s a bit hard to buy the goofy Rango as a romantic lead, but since the romance sub-plot gets most of it’s screen-time during this second act, it struggles to carry the story along.  And perhaps because we strongly suspect that the whole “hunt to find the water bottle” is a distraction (and it is), we’re waiting for the real plot to arrive.  And Rango himself hasn’t stepped up yet, so we’re waiting, also, for him to engage.  Waiting does not make for a fast moving story.

Put all of these things together and, as I said, the second act lags.

But then watch as things pick up again when Jake shows up to throw Rango out of town and force Rango to cross to the Other Side (of the road) to find the central theme of the story: you ARE you who invent yourself to be.  With a side-helping of everyone is the hero of their own story.  Rango has convinced the town’s people that he is a hero, but he has yet to convince himself.  But “you can’t walk out on your own story,” and Rango, finally, decides he will be the hero he has been pretending to be.  The protagonist suddenly takes on sharp focus.  One cylinder of the Story Engine comes to life .

The antagonist becomes equally sharp in the form of Jake and Mayor.  These two are in direct conflict with Rango over control of the town, and control of the water.  The antagonist cylinder fires up.   When Jake and the Mayor capture Ms. Beans (she’s the last hold out to sell her land in the real-estate scheme that is, of course, at the heart of the Mystery) the conflict is right there on the Main Street of Dirt, and the stakes suddenly become quite personal to Rango who must save her and himself.  Cylinders 3 and 4 are up and running, and the story is finally working.  The town’s problems are now Rango’s problems, not a play.  Rango returns to town, faces down Jake and the Mayor, solves the Mystery, returns the water, and gets the girl.  Ta da!

The moral: get the story engine engaged and you get a clear directional force pushing the viewer/reader to keep watching.

Caveat: while both my husband and I were a bit bored in the middle, despite the movie’s bucket-loads of style, my kids, 5 and 7 years old, were most interested in the middle.  The middle was where most of the good jokes played out, they said.  The kids were there for the funny, who cares about the plot?

Which just goes to show you: know your audience.

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