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.

First, if you don’t know of China Miéville yet, stop reading this right now and go get a copy of Perdido Street Station.  It is one of the weirdest, darkest, grittiest novels I’ve ever read, and—maybe paradoxically—it’s beautifully written to boot.  I am already itching to get to the library and pick up my next Miéville book.

If you’re interested in writing, Perdido Street Station is more than a great novel; it’s a writing workshop.  Miéville can teach you volumes about writing with élan, but I don’t want to go on for volumes here.  Instead, I want to encapsulate a few of the lessons I learned from Miéville, with references to specific turns of phrase.

Lesson one: If you want to write gripping fantasy or science fiction, inundate your reader with the bizarre.

In the first paragraphs of Perdido Street Station we already see a building dribbling mucus.  That one goes up into the sci-fi firmament right next to Heinlein’s dilating door: it tells me volumes about what I’m looking at in just two words.  Not only do I know that humans didn’t build this building, but I can guess that it must have been intelligent insectoids.  (If you had the same guess, you’d be right.)  Since this building stands beside ordinary brick-and-mortar cousins, I know humans and aliens live in close proximity to one another, and most importantly of all, I know this city is a slimy, gritty, stinking, disgusting place to live.  How could it not be if its buildings dribble mucus?

By the end of chapter two we’ve encountered khepri, refflicks, and pterabirds pulling rickshaws; we’ve seen lumbering constructs, intelligent badgers, and the Remade; we’ve seen buildings and artwork made of khepri spit and flying baskets that run errands for you.  By the end of chapter three we add to the list the vodyanoi, their water sculptures, and a garuda.  Don’t know what these are?  It doesn’t matter.  Everyone in the world of Perdido Street Station knows what they are, and that makes the world real for the reader.

The list keeps growing, by the way, and it keeps getting weirder, until you meet beings so strange that not even the inhabitants of Miéville’s world can comprehend them.  And that doesn’t make things harder to understand; it throws the utterly bizarre into sharp contrast with the so-far-so-good-I-can-dig-it-bizarre.  If you can get your head around the cactus warriors, the wyrmen, and the ambassador from Hell, it’s really saying something that no one can sort out what the hell Mr. Motley is or understand the motivations—or even the physical and metaphysical existence of—the extradimensional Weaver.

In a nutshell, lesson one is it’s okay to think of your otherworldy setting like one big, long, panning shot through the Mos Eisley cantina.

(If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then A) I’ll bet you a shiny nickel you’re under 25, and B) go watch Star Wars.  Maybe I’ll post later about why the cantina scene alone makes the real Star Wars movies so much better than those awful pretenders claming to be prequels.)

“It’s the Story” is a blog about stories that catch our attention, compel our involvement, and light us up. Our bloggers, whom we’ll introduce shortly, are successful writers and other people with professional or passionate interest in the story at the heart of any novel, movie, short story, play, or life. What about the story grabs, has legs, gets it moving, pulls us in? More to come.

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