Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Offer S/he Can't Refuse

Okay, more examples to drive this “Make a List” concept home.

I saw Inception not too long ago and rewatched Die Hard this week. (Love that sweaty wifebeater look that Sly and Bruce made iconic, but wattage-wise neither of them holds a candle to Alan Rickman oozing his way around Fox Towers.)

And then I also rewatched Dreamscape. With a lot of wattage from a very young Dennis Quaid.

And I also – well, I wouldn’t call it reading, but I navigated my way around The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – the book.

Seeing those three action/suspense films and looking at the book all in proximity made me take note of an element that often comes in the first or usually second sequence, about the same time as the Inciting Incident, or Call To Adventure: “The Offer S/he Can’t Refuse.”

This would be a proposition – or often a threat - that “locks the hero/ine into the story” as they like to say in Hollywood.

In the first act of a story, as Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, translating him, have pointed out, we often encounter a Reluctant Hero/ine – not all that keen to go on the adventure of the story – and somewhere in the first act there will be a “Hero/ine Refuses the Call” scene.

So if the Hero/ine has Refused The Call, the villain, or mentor, or the person who hires or recruits her or him must make an Offer S/he Can’t Refuse.

Okay, so what was it for Inception? What was the offer Saito made Leo that made him take the job? It is completely obvious and on the nose, not to mention typical, so I’m not even going to tell you – I expect anyone who’s seen the movie to be able to answer instantly.

I don’t expect all of you to have seen Dreamscape recently, so I’ll tell you that one: Dennis Quaid initially Refuses The Call To Adventure offered by his old mentor, Max Von Sydow: to participate in the dream research experiment. But Dennis has been living off gambling earnings for the last few years and Max threatens him with a 5-year IRS audit unless he joins the research team. Cut to Dennis fuming in a lab chair with electrodes strapped to his head.

Those of you who have read Dragon Tattoo should be able to answer this one as well… unless of course you were skimming as liberally as I was, in which case you might have missed it. But I don’t know if this element was in the movie, so I’ll just tell you.

In the book, Blomkvist does initially refuse Henrick Vanger’s job offer/Call To Adventure (to write a history of the Vanger family and solve the murder of Harriet Vanger along the way), but then Vanger not only offers Blomkvist 5 million kroner, but virtually guarantees that Blomkvist can avoid prison and clear his name by promising him damning information about the industrialist who has sued him (IF Blomkvist does the job.) It’s a clear “Offer He Can’t Refuse”.

Now, there’s not always an Offer S/he Can’t Refuse – and you might get the idea from all of these examples in a row that it’s a somewhat tricky thing to do - because it can just seem corny or over the top. But even if there is not an OSCR – there will definitely be a Statement Of the Stakes (or a visual representation of the stakes that speaks louder than words, but it’s always best to spell these things out.).

In Die Hard – there’s not an Offer He Can’t Refuse, but the Stakes are made very clear - Bruce is going to do whatever it takes to save his wife from the terrorists. (This is staple of action movies – it’s the hero’s family in jeopardy. I think that’s cheap, not to mention a low form of morality on the Kohlberg scale (every writer should know the Kohlberg Stages Of Moral Development, btw) - but then I’m not an action story fan, either.

The family in jeopardy as the stakes is not always just cheap emotion, though - it can make a fascinating moral story, as we see in The Godfather. Michael is locked into the story when his father, Don Corleone, is nearly killed by a rival family and the family – and the family empire - is in jeopardy. The twist and terrible irony is – Michael is the least likely member of the family to risk himself to save his father and the family business, but he’s the one who steps up to the plate with a brilliant ruthlessness that proves him to be every bit his father’s son - “Famiglia” through and through.

So if you’re feeling like – or getting comments that – there’s not enough reason for your hero/ine to be involved in the actions of your story, take a look at some of your favorite films/books and see how those storytellers locked their hero/ines into the action. There will definitely be stakes – but there might also be an “Offer They Can’t Refuse.”

And my real point here is, this is just ONE example of how looking at a series of films and books in your genre all in a row will almost inevitably help you get unstuck on your own story problems.

You know the question of the day – any examples of Offers S/he Can’t Refuse for me? How about interesting Statements of Stakes? Can you identify exactly how your hero/ine is locked into your story? Is it believable, or could that element maybe use some work?

- Alex


How To Write A Novel From Start To Finish: previous posts

How to write a novel from start to finish (part one)

What is genre?

What's your premise?

The Price
(more on premise)

What is High Concept?

The Dream Journal

Three-Act Structure Review and Assignments

The Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Index Card Method and Story Structure Grid

Elements of Act One

Story Elements Checklist for brainstorming Index Cards

What KIND Of Story Is It?

Elements of Act Two, Part 1

Plants and Payoffs

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (part 1)

What's the PLAN?

Plan, Central Question, Central Action (Part 3)

Elements of Act II, Part 2

The Lover Makes A Stand (romantic comedy structure

Elements of Act Three (part 1)

What Makes A Great Climax? (Elements of Act III, part 2)

Elements of Act III, part 2: Elevate Your Ending

What KIND of story is it? (and other notes about Inception)


More Rewriting: The Subplot Pass

Rewriting: Pay Attention To Sequences!

Rewriting: Stuck? Make a List” concept home.


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors
now available on Kindle and for PC and Mac.


Bobby Mangahas said...

The ORIGINAL Karate Kid would be an example of this. Mr. Miyagi makes proposes to Kreese saying that for a fight to be fair, Daniel would face Johnny one-on-one at the All Valley, rather than the gang beat-downs Daniel had been getting. Daniel thinks Miyagi is nuts but Mr. Miyagi offers to train him in preparation for the tournament. Daniel eventually agrees to the training and of course 'wax on wax off' slowly worked it's way to to pop culture.

Debbie said...

The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo eh? You surprised me...I'm not sure I could manage the content. Was writing Cold Kisses difficult as a result of the content?
Rickman...mmm, yeah. Rima is so damn lucky. I believe they'll be hitting 50 years together within the next five years or so.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

R.J., that's a good example, especially because it's more subtle than the other examples I've given. I like that Daniel thinks Miyagi is crazy, and that what he's offering is actually different (winning in a tournament) that what Daniel would really like.

But that makes the offer much more realistic, and the film gives us credit for knowing, along with Daniel) that this actually IS an offer he can't refuse.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Debbie, that's why I said I 'navigated' it, instead of reading it. I had someone talk me through it so I knew what to skip. Otherwise, forget it. And then there are huge chunks of that book that are just skippable, anyway.

witchhunt said...

Alex, I love this and your other list making suggestions.
This all feels like play, but I've been getting great insights by looking at specific movies and books.

I'm not sure my WIP has stakes or an OSCR.
Ayu, a teenager already reeling from the recent death of her parents, is contacted by the police when her boyfriend's dead body is found. Everyone, including the police, seem to conclude that the death was an accident. Ayu knows that it's not and unable to deal with another unavenged death (the man who rammed into her parents' car was never caught), she starts investigating on her own.

I'm wondering if I can amp up the stakes or turn this into an OSCR somehow.

RhondaL said...

Dragon Tattoo certainly "invites" liberal skimming. I probably stuck with it because I was trapped on long flights. My entertainment was either Stieg or the SkyMall.

I keep stalling out reading Played with Fire, partly because it doesn't fit in with my Journos Needing Redemption list.

Anyhoo, I'm wondering if I need to firm up The Offer in mine? It's less of a pin-pointable (izzat a word???) incident. Sort of a build to a tipping point.

Does the offer have to come from external forces? Can it come from an internal need for the character?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Rhonda, there doesn't have to be an external offer, but the Call To Adventure (which is mandatory in a story, also known as the Inciting Incident or Catalyst) is >usually< an external event.

If you look at a story like Chinatown, for example, there's no Offer He Can't Refuse. No one blackmails Jake into taking the case - The Call To Adventure is a routine infidelity case offered him by "Mrs. Mulwray". He tries to talk "Mrs. Mulwray" (who turns out to be fake) out of pursuing the case, but he takes it for the money - all in a day's work.

He only becomes obsessed with solving it gradually, through a series of events. His pride is wounded when a man in the barbershop accuses him of being a sellout (basically...), he is genuinely intrigued by the mystery of Hollis Mulwray, and then of course, he meets the real Mrs. Mulwray and is instantly attracted, and the final tumbler falling into place is Mulwray ending up dead.

With this build of events we gradually come to understand that Jake is a detective, and has a compulsion to solve the mystery because it is his essence - and ultimately because he is looking for redemption (by helping wounded Mrs. Mulwray).

I personally love that kind of unfolding of motivation - BUT - you better be sure that you're actually doing that instead of just being soft about your character's motivation, which it kind of sounds like you think you are.

I suggest you brainstorm some books/ films that do the "internal need" motivation well. Does your character's internal need stack up to those?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Here's another tip - with an "internal desire" motivation, it almost always is being driven by that ghost or wound from the hero/ine's past - as it certainly is in Chinatown.

But take Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Call To Adventure is the government guys coming to Indy wanting to hire him to find the Lost Ark.

There's no Offer He Can't Refuse, right?

It's true that the STAKES are potentially supernaturally huge: if Hitler gets the lost Ark his army will become invincible.

But that's not really why Indy takes the job of finding the Ark. He doesn't actually believe that legend.

It's not the money that makes him take the job,either - they don't even discuss money - and while it's partly just the adventure of it, that's not the whole reason.

What's really driving him - I think - is that he has a strange familiarity with this artifact because his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was obsessed with it.

And even though we don't know it at the time, he's most likely thinking that he'll get to see Marion again, so there's an unresolved love motivation.

A ghost from the past.

RhondaL said...

Thanks, Alex. My haziness comes from my expression of it.

I like the subtle evolution of Jake's "quest" in Chinatown. My Spideysens likes that one and wants to apply something similar.

After all, I have an Inciting Incident and a Catalyst. The Refusal is tough when you've got protagonists who are on the job, whether they're cops, PIs or journos. They have to retain some exposure to the case as part of the day's work, but I suppose the Refusal comes with the surprising emotional involvement.

So, it's time for me to firm that up so that it's more clear.

Thanks again!

I've d

Stephen D. Rogers said...

I'm rereading GORKY PARK.

Moscow Detective Renko doesn't want the investigation into three dead in Gorky Park. He refuses the call by investigating "just enough" that the case is taken away by the KGB, who time and again refuse to take the case, forcing him to continue investigating in hopes that he'll uncover enough that they're forced to take the case away from him.

I find the twist on the usual motivation brilliant.


Sarra Cannon said...

I'm not saying this was a ground-breaking movie, but my husband and I just watched it through Netflix instant-play, so it's fresh in my mind. Have you ever seen PAYCHECK with Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman? It has a clear "refusal of the call" when the client wants Affleck's character to do a super secret project that will take three years (after which they will erase his memory). However, when they offer him a guaranteed 9 figure paycheck, how can he say no?

It also comes to mind that this happens in heist kind of stories a lot. Where the hero vows to hang up his hat and never go thieving again... until that one last job he can't refuse because it's going to set him up for life. Of course, in the end, they pretty much always die :P. It rarely ends well, anyway.

Thanks for the great post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

That's an odd one, Stephen, but of course makes sense in the time and place of the novel. Should really read that one one of these days.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, the outrageous money offer is a big one for action stories, Sarra. And you're absolutely right - "one last job" is a trope of the action genre - similar to the "cop's last case" or cop's last call" - usually involving a beloved partner who takes that one last call on the eve of retirement - and gets himself killed, forcing the protagonist to avenge him.

Gayle Carline said...

How about the Back to the Future trilogy? Marty is accidentally catapulted back in time and, just as accidentally, interferes with his mom and dad getting together. Now the Stakes become critical - he wants to keep existing! With each successive sequel, something has been accidentally altered on the timeline and the Stakes again, become, to set his life back on track.

P.S. I'm teaching a workshop this weekend at SCWC - I'll see you there, yes?

Gayle Carline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
popularculture - Totally PC said...

Love the post. The theoretical link was great. Do you have other theory links that you would kindly share?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, yeah, I love the Back to the Future stakes - couldn't be more clear or dire - and at the same time, funny.

That's Stakes as opposed to an Offer.

And no, I won't be in Newport - I'm doing San Diego instead. Have a great time!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Witchhunt, I'm so sorry to be late approving your comment - it got filtered to spam.

You don't need an OSCR in your story, you have HUGE stakes, it looks like to me. You've got a teenager investigating what I am assuming is actually a murder. That's life and death jeopardy for her, because the killer is still out there, right? And is not going to be happy that someone is looking into the murder.

Plus you will have a teeanger - and a GIRL - going into all kinds of dangerous situations.

You've got stakes up the - well, let's just say you've got stakes. You just have to be aware that that's what the stakes ARE.