When you forget to finish your story.
Something must have happened while I was streaming Little Woods last night. Either my Internet provider conked out, or the film fell victim to the latest Apple beta rollout because the entire last 1/4 of the film was missing.
Either that or the Author of the film forgot to finish the story.
Of course, it could be that the filmmaker intended to tell a tale of these two ladies struggling it out in North Dakota. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to be a story. Tales are different than stories in that they don’t seek to argue a particular point-of-view. They throw things out there and let you decide what it all means.
Unfortunately, pitting two contrasting subjective perspectives against one another builds expectation within an Audience. Framing them against the backdrop of one over-arching objective point-of-view only makes matter worse. Both acts as signals of higher purpose.
And if you’re going to do that, you need to tell the whole story.
The Purpose of an Act
Acts in a story do not exist because Aristotle discovered beginning, middle, and end. They don’t exist because of a connection to the Ordinary and Supernatural Worlds of the Hero’s Journey. And they indeed don’t exist because projection reels were ten minutes in length.
Acts exist to focus context. The shift from one Act to the next signifies the exhaustion of one exploration and the intention of another. The focus is on a possible resolution of conflict. Can it be resolved here? If not, let’s try over here. That’s not working either? Let’s exhaust every opportunity then to resolve conflict in this other area before we finally give up, and move on to the next.
That’s the purpose of an Act.
Treading Over the Same Territory
You know when you’re arguing with someone, and suddenly, they bring up something you already addressed forty-five minutes ago? That only happens when they didn’t have anything else to stand on in the first place. They backtrack because they never had a persuasive argument.
That same thing happens when an Author fails to realize the type of conflict that appears in each Act.
Most films, particularly those in the Thriller genre (like Little Woods), center the area of conflict for everyone on activities. Star Wars does this. Marvel superhero movies do too. And so do all the other films where the solution to conflict lies in activities the characters need to stop or start doing (or stop or start someone else from doing).
The question is—what type of solution saves the day?
Breaking Down Types of Conflict
It turns out; you can break up a problem of activity into four basic types:
These four are comprehensive and all-inclusive of physical conflict. You can’t describe a problematic activity without it falling into one of these contexts.
Understanding as a conflict shows up in most Christopher Nolan films. Whether it’s a magician creating all kinds of misunderstandings with his Transported Man trick in The Prestige, or a team of mind-heisters convincing a corporate heir to break up his company in Inception, Understanding both fuels the conflict and holds the key to resolution in those stories.
Evidence of Doing as a conflict finds life in Star Wars and The Dark Knight. It’s not about whether or not you beat the bad guy in these stories, but rather, how you’re doing it. Should you use brute strength, or should you try out this Force thing? Are you going to keep doing what you do until they see you as the villain? Or are you going to see that some men want to watch the world burn?
Obtaining is just the opposite: Obtaining as a source of conflict is all about winning or losing, controlling, and domination. Little Bill wants to dominate his quiet town and keep it safe from interlopers in Unforgiven. William Wallace wants a country of his own in Braveheart. With Obtaining it’s not so much how you do it, it’s how much you’re dominating and controlling the conversation.
Lastly, there is Learning.
Many people struggle to see the difference between Learning and Understanding—until they remember life in college, and life shortly after that. In college, you fight to hit grade requirements while you navigate the social landscape. The act of learning how to avoid the occasional faux pas while simultaneously completing an insane workload is the source of conflict for the collegiate years.
It’s when you graduate that you realize all that learning prepared you for the real world lessons on the outside.
Learning as a source of conflict appears in stories as disparate as Wreck-It Ralph and The Lives of Others. Video games require a strategy to beat—and so does stifling political dissent in East Germany at the end of the Cold War. The act of spying on your citizens and listening in on their conversations resembles the same kind of process engaged in learning the patterns of enemy behavior in the arcade.
The conflict lies in the gathering of information.
With all four of these contexts, we exhaust the totality of exploration in the area of Physics, or activities. We tell a complete story of physical conflict.
Assuming, of course, we hit all four.
The Act Explained
The order in which an Author chooses to explore these four contexts differs from story to story. Order is meaning. Which came first? The chicken or the egg? Chicken to egg describes reproduction. Egg to chicken is maturation. Order is meaning, and story structure is order.
Story structure, therefore, is meaning.
Star Wars takes this approach towards exploring conflict in the physical realm:
In Act One, the Empire makes it understood that they have stepped up their game. When that doesn’t work, they teach the Rebels what happens to a home planet when you plan an uprising in the first half of Act Two. The second half of the film begins with the Empire chasing the Rebels back to their hidden base. And the final Act, Act Three, showcases the attempt on both sides to dominate these star wars.
Four contexts. Each in comparable length. Once visited, never repeated — a sense of completion on finishing the last.
The Dark Knight examines those same four contexts in a different order:
If order is meaning, and story structure is order, then a different meaning requires a different story structure.
The Meaning of Story Structure
The meaning of The Dark Knight differs from that of Star Wars. The latter is a Triumph, with both objective and subjective concerns aligning in a positive outcome. The former is a Personal Tragedy: the subjective view turns negative as the objective resolves into the positive. Bruce saves Gotham, but lives long enough to see himself become the villain.
In Act One, Bruce contends with masked vigilantes trying to do his job. The Joker, meanwhile, wreaks havoc on the mob’s operations. The first half of the Second Act and the end of the first half of the film finds the Joker moving beyond pure chaos and into outright dominance of criminal activities. Bruce and Dent hash things out over Gotham (masking control over Rachel) and the city loses vital officials.
The Midpoint of the film occurs when Dent steers the conversation of conflict from domination to outright misunderstanding. Claiming himself to be the Batman, Dent sends the narrative into an entirely new direction, initiating the start of the second half of the story.
The Joker signals his real purpose by burning a pile of cash (making his psychosis Understood). Bruce accidentally saves the wrong person—a gross misUnderstanding that rolls the narrative into its Third and final Act.
Here, we find the Joker pitting the citizens of Gotham against each other. Wanting the rule-abiding citizen to learn that he is no better than the common criminal, the Joker discovers quite the opposite. The people of Gotham teach the Joker something more.
And lastly, the misunderstandings of the previous Act turn to indisputable evidence when the Batman turns against police forces. Learning that the caped crusader killed the honorable Harvey Dent only fuels their hatred, motivating them to chase Bruce down like a dog in the streets.
Order is meaning. That “down” feeling you sense from The Dark Knight is a direct result of the order of concerns in each Act. Understanding to Learning to Doing to Obtaining offers a triumphant experience. Doing to Obtaining to Understanding to Learning gives the experience of a Personal Tragedy.
Understanding to Doing to Obtaining to Doing gives you nothing.
And that’s the problem with Little Woods.
The Incompleteness of Repetition
In the first Act of Little Woods, protagonist Ollie (Tessa Thompson) makes it Understood that she is not getting back into the drug mule game. With one week left in her probationary period, she wants everyone (especially her Parole Officer) to know she has turned over a new leaf. This new direction bothers Bill, a local drug dealer who her to run cross-country for her again.
Things go South at the First Act Turn, and Ollie gets back in the game. She starts selling again, Doing what she does best to make things right for her and her sister, Deb.
Doing shifts to Obtaining with the loss of Deb’s trailer, home to both Deb and her son, but more importantly—home to Ollie’s stash of cash and illegal drugs. Ollie tries to steal them back but fails. With her back up against the wall, Ollie gives up control of her activities to Bill and agrees to run to Canada for him.
The girls cross the border, do the job, then cross back—
—and then the film cuts to black.
For some inexplicable reason, the final Act of Learning is missing. The result is a disconcerting feeling that the film cheated you out of something significant. The meaning you expected—that greater understanding of what it means to live life—fails to show up.
The story of Little Woods fails you.
What was the meaning of Ollie’s decision? What was it all leading up to in the end? Was the film’s intent only social commentary, or was it trying to say something more?
We’ll never know for sure because we never get to see that final Act.
When it’s OK to Tell a Tale
When you leave an Act on the table, you open yourself up to accusations of propaganda. That’s why you‘ll find much of the conversation around Little Woods steer towards social commentary. The notion that this is a “brave” and “thought-provoking” is an accurate one—with an incomplete narrative argument, we’re left imagining how the story would have ended.
And that includes projecting our political agenda into the film.
Again, there is nothing wrong with writing a tale—if it’s clear from the beginning that that is your intention. Inglorious Basterds does not attempt to argue a point of view. Neither does Django Unchained. Heck, even Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood goes so far as to proclaim its intent in the title. Quentin Tarantino writes fairy tales, but that’s OK—because that’s all we expect from him.
Basterds, Django, and Hollywood are all great cinematic experiences—but they’re not great stories. They work as well as they do for the Audience they seek to entertain because their purpose is clear. Tarantino isn’t trying to sell you anything more.
Little Woods, on the other hand, frames itself as if it were telling a complete story.
Fulfilling a Promise
The Author of Little Woods pits Ollie’s go-getter approach towards resolving problems conflicts against Deb’s more passive-aggressive subjective point-of-view. These dynamically opposed perspectives set a context for conflict known as the Main Character and Influence Character Throughline views.
Their relationship as sisters builds upon these initial points-of-view with its look at the dynamics of conflict situated between two people. The growth of conflict resolution within their sisterhood finds a home in the Relationship Story Throughline.
Finally, the battle played out between all the Players in the narrative wraps up into the Objective Story Throughline. This objective view of conflict includes Ollie against Bill, Ollie and her Parole Officer, and even the dispute between Deb and the creepy fake ID sellers.
With all Four Throughlines set—all four perspectives accounted for—the Audience expects a complete story. They expect a meaningful resolution. They expect four complete Acts, successfully exploring all four types of conflict within each Throughline.
They expect resonance.
When you leave out an entire context, or worse—repeat yourself with conflict already explored—then you cheat the Audience out of a meaningful experience.
What happened to the Parole Officer? Was he going to Learn that Ollie fell back into crime? Did Ollie learn that maybe this is the life for her? Did Deb’s ex finally decide that he wanted to Learn what it takes to be a father?
All these questions not only answer open-ended conflicts but also fulfill the promise of telling a complete story by resolving the last type of Learning. If you give an Audience three of four, they’re going to expect the fourth.
And you will lose trust when you don’t.
The Consequence of Letdown
Little Woods scores a remarkable 96% Critical Response on Rotten Tomatoes. That’s why I chose to stream above everything else--with that much approval; it had to be great.
Scroll down to the Audience Response, and you’ll see that score drop to 55%.
That’s the result of a broken and incomplete story.
In the past, I wrote about the experience of being able to predict Act progression while watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I’m nothing special—we all intuit good story structure, as good story structure is merely a model of how our mind’s work.
I just happen to know a handful of fancy words and narrative concepts that explain great detail why that intuition strikes.
Those 55%-ers may not care an ounce for great direction or captivating performances, but they do long for the same thing we ALL long for—meaning.
And a story without proper narrative structure is a story without meaning.
It’s not even a story.