Everything the Protagonist Does Makes the Problem Worse
The reader expects that as the protagonist tries to solve the story problem, he will only make things worse, until he has no choice but to face his misbelief. This is how stories escalate. This is why, if it was up to me, and I know this is incendiary both literally and figuratively, I would take every story's structure book, from the hero's journey on up, and I would burn them, because for one thing, they're not story structure. That is a completely misnomer. They are plot structure, and the story is not about the plot, it is not governed by external things happening. The story is governed by the protagonist and the choices he or she makes. In other words, story structure's the by-product of the story while told; not something you can put on from the outside in. The interesting thing about that is it means that very often you don't have-- and lots of stories that don't have an antagonist to make things worse. Really, almost always, it is your protagonist. And really, that force of opp...
osition in your story, certainly there are things in your plot. But the primary force of opposition is that internal struggle within your protagonist. That is your primary source of opposition. But... There is one antagonist who actually plays through every single novel ever written. There's one protagonist, and that protag-- I mean, excuse me, there's one antagonist, who plays through every single novel and that antagonist has to be ruthless, has to be willing to really pummel the protagonist, not just physically but really embarrass them, and you know who that is? That's you! You have to be really, really, really mean to your protagonist to force them to dig deep in order to make that change that we're talking about. I'm very fond of saying, "There will be blood." I'm not talking about the movie right now. There will be blood-- If you haven't really thought about, "Okay, this might really hurt them". Now when I say hurt, I don't mean, and this is a bad mistake writers make, they'll go, "Oh here's an external grab-bag "of really bad things that could happen. "I'll make some bad, you know, random thing happen "just to really hurt them". We don't mean that. We mean, given what they want, and given that misbelief, and given the people in their lives, what is the most painful thing that could happen? Again, and that those people who are doing the painful thing, that it's true who they are and what they want too. How bad can you make it? Because writers will always hedge. Let me give you an example. Um, this example, again, is from a movie, an old movie, called Sullivan's Travels. Sullivan's Travels is a movie from the '40s. It's made by a filmmaker named Preston Sturges, and if you've never heard of him, I am completely jealous 'cause that means you could go watch all of his movies for the first time, and I've seen them all a thousand times. So let me tell you the story of, of Sullivan's Travels. Sullivan's Travels takes place in 1940 and the protagonist is John Sullivan, and he is a very famous movie director. Very famous, got lots of money, I mean, in the movie. Obviously, it's not for real. So he's a famous movie director, but what he's famous for is making really silly comedies with names like "Hey Hey in the Haylofts". You could kind of guess what that's gonna be. But this is 1940, and he thinks, and this is his misbelief, again you go way deeper in novels than movies with a misbelief, but I would say his misbelief is that he thinks that that's not worth anything. These comedies, they're not worth anything, it's 1940's. So it's 1940. So he's saying to his producer, "I don't wanna make anymore comedies." They've got all of these scripts for him. "I don't wanna do that," he says. "I wanna make a movie about something serious, "people out there suffering, "I want to make a movie about suffering, "something serious." The producer keeps going, "But with a little sex in it, right?" He's like, "No! "I want to make a movie about suffering!" To which the producer says, "What do you know about suffering? "The worst thing that ever happened to you was "you got to the Brown Derby, "and they were out of shrimp cocktail." Like, "What do you know?" So he's like, "Well, good point, good point. "I'll go out and suffer. "I mean, look at all these people who are suffering. "How hard can it be? "Pretty easy to suffer, right?" So, he literally has the costume department make him like a "hobo" costume, and he goes out-- Now, again, remember this is 1940, and he's got, like a dime in his pocket and he's gonna hitchhike out, and the only thing that he suffers at that point is a bit of annoyance because he gets picked up by a middle-aged, man-hungry widow-- Or I don't think she's a widow, just middle-aged and man-hungry. Anyway, he comes back to Hollywood, going, "Okay, that didn't work." So he decides, "No no, I'm still going to do it. "I'm gonna walk this time, I'm not gonna hitchhike." By now, this studio was kinda thinking, "He's really serious. "I don't want a bad thing to happen to him." So he's out there in his like little hobo thing, and he's going to sleep under the stars. And they're following him in like a giant Airstream. So now his only suffering folds. And at this point, he goes, "You know what, "this isn't enough, I really need to suffer." Now, he could've given up at any point, but he is going to keep upping the ante. He goes, "No, I'm going to do it for real this time. "Nobody is going with me this time. "I'm not gonna have any bail out, anything, "and I'm going to ride the rails." But the one thing that the studio has done is they've sewn an ID card into the sole of his shoe so that, you know, worse came to worse, he could prove who he was. So, now he's riding the rails with actual homeless people. And he sees real suffering, like real suffering up close. And he starts to feel uncomfortable, not because of the suffering, but because he's starting to feel like a voyeur at the table of human misery. This is not a good thing for him, and he feels humbled. And he's like, "You know, "I don't feel good about this anymore. "I gotta go back." Now at that point, had Preston Sturges let him off the hook, he probably could've made a movie about suffering. I mean, he could've, kind of. But he wouldn't have overcome his misbelief yet. So what happens is, don't tempt fate, right? The Rule of Threes. So what happens is, he decides he's gonna go back, but he calls the studio and says, you know, "Bring me some money, 'cause I wanna give money "to all these people, you know, before I go back, "because I feel so awful." So he's got these $5 bills and he's giving them out, and someone hits him over the head and takes the money. Now he's compl-- Concussion, he's knocked out, someone steals his shoes, the guy who steals his shoes puts the shoes on and goes running down the train tracks. Again, this is 1940, so you don't get to see anything really grizzly, but he gets run over by the train, so you can imagine. No longer recognizable, except there's the shoe. And so now the shoe's off, they've pulled the thing out and in the papers everywhere, it's you know, "Director John Sullivan," you know, "Untimely Death." Meanwhile, Sullivan now wakes up, like a rail yard bull pulls him up, and he's, you know, really disoriented, and he tries to-- "No, no, no, you don't understand about, Director?" And the guy goes, "Yeah, and I'm Shirley Temple." You know, and he, he, because he's out of it, he punches the cop. Like, really bad idea. So now they're hauling him to court, and he's saying, "No, I'm John Sullivan!" And they hold up this headline, "No, you're not! "No you're not, you're just, you're this guy." And now he's in prison without a get-out-of-jail-free card. And now he really sees misery, and now he is really miserable. And he sees it up close. And what happens is, is you know, it's one of those chain gang kind of things, so they're wearing those stripey pajamas, you know, and it's like an old-school whatever. It looks like he is in the bayou somewhere. And once a month, once a month, there's a church out in the bayou. I think it was run by a black preacher, it was really wonderful, who says, "Once a month, you guys can come out and watch a movie. "We'll show a movie for you." One time, that's all they get. Only enjoyment out of the whole month. So there's this scene, and it just, it just makes you cry. He's in the church, and they don't show "Hey Hey in the Hayloft", don't worry. He's in the church, but they're showing this screwball, like a Tom & Jerry kinda cartoon, and these men are just laughing, uproariously. You can see the laughter, and the camera, you see him looking at their faces, and what he's finally realized is, the last thing people, (laughs) the last thing people who are miserable want to see, is more miserable people. They don't want to see that. And he sees the beauty in what he actually does, which is he gives people hope. And he gives them a moment of joy. At which point, Preston Sturges being the nice guy he was, goes, "Okay, you've learned that." And now they discover who he is, and he comes back, And then, now the, um, you know the producer's saying, "Now you can make that movie that you wanted to make about suffering." He goes, "No, no, no, no, "I wanna make Hey Hey in the Hayloft 2. I don't need to do that at all." And that's how it ends. So now there's everything he did to make it better to get what he wanted only made it worse, until he had no way out, and that is the point. Protagonist has to get to that place where they have no way out, and that is what happened.