Friday 22 January 2021

Characters, Stories and Entangled Souls

In the last post, I looked at characters. And we'll get back to that very soon, but I'd like to look at something that's been bothering me and, when I think about it, it comes down to story and character.

I watched some movies over Christmas and New Year. The first is Pixar's latest, Soul. It's on the Disney+ App and by now you might have gotten around to watching it. There will be spoilers. But, as I explain, there are very few spoilers to spoil.

Being a comedy writer who loves jazz piano and theology, I was really looking forward to Soul, a comedy about a jazz pianist going into the afterlife.

I was chronically disappointed and I've been thinking hard about why.

I was concerned that my expectations were too high, and that I was just being hyper critical or jaded. But then I watched It’s a Wonderful Life on New Year’s Day, which remains a masterpiece (albeit fifteen minutes too long, if we’re honest). It covers similar subject matter to Soul, and is a much better use of your viewing time. (Not that that is limited in these times of lockdown)

The day after, I watched Tangled for the first time. Tangled is a truly brilliant movie, a classic fairy tale retold in a way that seems fresh, funny and full of action. The storytelling is masterful (except for that bit where her tear lands on him at the end. That was proper cheating. Naughty).

These three movies reminded me how critical good storytelling is.

In this regard, unusually for Pixar, Soul is real clunker.

What We Expect From Pixar's Pete

Pixar, to be fair to them, have raised the bar ludicrously high when it comes to storytelling. Dave Cohen and I have even done Sitcom Geeks podcasts about their 22 Rules of Storytelling. They've rewritten the rules and raised the bar really hard. So criticising Pixar here seems a bit like having a go at Paul McCartney for Wings, an extremely successful band with some gigantic hits, that only suffer by comparison to the platinum standard set by McCartney himself with the Beatles.

And let's face it. Pete Docter has nothing to prove. He has writing credits on Inside Out, Up, Wall-E, Monsters Inc and Toy Story 2. I watched Wall-E for the first time last year, and speculated if I wrote anything that good, I'd retire because I'm never getting close to that again. It's brilliant. Really really good. Big yet subtle, and it's about robots and yet utterly humane.

That said, Wall-E still not as good as Toy Story 2. In which Pete Docter also had a hand. That movie is perfect.

So Pete Docter knows stories. I am not worthy even to sharpen his pencils. I get it.

But somehow this Soul story slipped through the net. Maybe because he’s very very senior in Pixar now so who’s going to take him to one side and tell him that the storytelling on Soul isn’t up to his usual standards?

Getting In The Provisos

Let’s do the other provisos now, shall we? Maybe you agreed with almost all the critics who thought that the movie was enchanting, delightful and transcendent. If you liked it, that’s fine. It’s possible to like bad movies that don’t really work. In my YouTube series about script problems, I cover some major flaws that could be contained in the first ten pages of your sitcom script. But if the reader or viewer just connects with the material or the character for whatever reason, some fairly major flaws can be overlooked or don’t seem to matter.

I was reminded of this when I rewatched The Italian Job with my kids, also over Christmas. I love so much about that movie. In fact, I will go as far as saying that I love that movie.

But The Italian Job doesn’t work. And I only noticed this on this latest viewing. Charlie (Michael Caine) is released from prison, and handed all the info for a heist in Turin. And he executes it, with a mess up at the end that’s just annoying, but doesn’t fundamentally mean anything. Why does Charlie want to pull off this job? We don’t know. What’s he trying to prove? To whom? No idea.

(Correction: See comment below which is a good point. And I was wrong, but I'm going to let my idiocy stand here. But all I'd say is there appears to be very little personal connection with the guy who dies. And once the job gets going, this motivation completely falls away. When it goes wrong, there's no sense of letting this guy down. The fact I can't remember his name is telling.)

This is a problem. As we established in the last post, your character is not a name, a suit and a situation. He's not even defined by what he or she does. A career criminal is not a character. Why commit crimes? Does he want glamour? Does he think the rich don't deserve it? Is he just trying to feed his family or pay medical bills (eg. Breaking Bad)? Why is Tony Soprano a criminal? In fact, he's having an existential crisis about that in the series.

But you couldn't make a sitcom series about The Italian Job. It's all icing and no cake. It's missing an Act 1 and Act 3. It’s essentially Michael Caine sporadically shouting at people, and minis driving around to a brilliant soundtrack.

This is a roundabout way of saying you can like Soul. And I can tell you why it doesn’t really work. Or how it could have been better. And, even though I don't know you, we can still be friends. And you don’t need to be sad I didn’t like the thing you liked. Deal?

Why Soul Doesn't Work For Me

If you didn’t know who Pete Docter was, and you were reading the script from a big pile, you’d probably stop reading at page 10. It’s not a strong opening. We have an uninspired music teacher, Joe, being offered a full time job, and he’s not happy about it. And slightly resents the children. But he’s not grumpy. But he’s not exactly Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. He’s not exactly… anything. 

Joe goes to see his mum and it’s clear that he’s never made it as a musician. But why? Bad luck? Maternal pressure? What is it about him and his character that has held him back? There doesn’t seem to be a reason. It looks like he’s just been unlucky.

But then his luck changes. Okay, you can have a piece of luck at the start of the movie. And he is then very very lucky dodging things that might harm him, until his luck runs out. And he dies.

Then he finds himself on a conveyor belt heading towards a great light and here we get even more questions. I’ve made my peace with the uber-bland post-religious afterlife stuff. I presume they were trying not to offend anyone, because the movie’s not about that. Fine. But you’re then left with how you depict characters who are archangelic or metaphysical in some way. I wasn’t convinced. But that wasn’t my issue. I had many many more.

Fine About Dying

For starters, everyone on that conveyor belt seemed fine about dying. And Joe didn’t. And Joe seemed odd for ‘having stuff to get back to’. Don’t we all? The lack of realism around that incident was just bizarre. And somehow, he was the only person in the history of infinity who jumped off the conveyor belt. Seriously? What makes Joe so special that he manages something that we’re given to understand no-one else has ever done before? And when he does manage it, the angelic beings don’t seem to know much about it. It was very weird.

And then we just get the constant explanation of rules, quests, astral planes and all kinds of ethereal business.

It. Just. So. Expositional.

All. The Time. 

What happens now? This. Why? Because of this. Then what? This. Why? Here's why. etc.

And then we get another unearned twist of fate. Joe gets to go back to earth! Except there’s a mix up and a body swap. But this sheer dumb luck, rather than based around story and character. You really shouldn’t be doing that (again) half way through the movie.

Then we have series of incidents where Joe wanders around with his cat and it all plays out exactly as you would expect. And when he gets his moment, it's an anti-climax. Like we new it would be. So what's his purpose now?

I don't really know what his purpose was to begin with. He wanted to be a professional jazz pianist because... he loved the music? He wanted to be like his dad? He didn't want to teach kids? I don't know.

Back to Rapunzel

Contrast this with Tangled. At the end of the second act, there was a brilliant low point. Rapunzel felt she had been betrayed, the man appeared to be sailing away, and she was going back to the arms of the woman she thinks is her mother. I had no idea how our heroes were going to get out of their pickle and how things would turn out.

No surprises like that in Soul at all. And there were some slightly confusing life lessons that your passions aren’t your purpose or something? Take a moment to smell the roses. Okay.

And then, at the very last moment, the eternal beings make an exception for Joe (even though no-one else has ever deserved this before) in a final resolution that was utterly predictable and infuriating in equal measure.

As you can tell, I didn’t like it.

And if you didn’t like it, maybe I’ve shown you why.

The moral of the story here is that the story is so important. Pixar get this right time after time. And we can learn so much from their movies. And here we learn, for once, how not to do it.

Wait, isn’t this a blog about Sitcoms?

Yes. This has everything to do with sitcoms. Sitcoms are stories.

Yes, there are characters. That’s why people come back again and again. There are jokes that get the laughs. Really good jokes can last for years and give people pleasure for decades. There are situations, poignant moments and tears as well as laughter that make a show or episode truly memorable. All of this happens in a story. It’s the chassis of the car on which you bolt the engine, electrics and bodywork.

Reading around the movie, it sounds like Pete Docter wanted to tell a story about souls before they are born. Which he does. Eventually. Having someone die and go to the afterlife - and then into the before-life feels like setting up a story you're not actually telling.

Getting the story right takes waaaaaay longer than most people think. When a script isn’t working, it’s usually the story that’s the problem.

And if the story isn't fixable, it's normally because the character is the problem. I think our hero, Joe, is not quite set up right as a character.

Rookie Mistake

In the case of spec scripts, the writer has normally started writing the script too early, and hoped that the story issues will sort themselves out. They very rarely do. They might well have started out with the wrong story altogether. Unless you’re some kind of genius, good sitcom stories are carefully chosen and scripts are planned and plotted so that every line, action and scene tips us into the next. That way, we have a chance of ending up with a script that is greater than the sum total of the parts. The scripts still needs soul, for sure, but it needs so much more.

Fixing Your Stories and Characters

That’s what I’m covering in my new sitcom video course, Writing Your Sitcom. We go right back to the beginning and think about characters and stories and how they can work together rather than fight each other. In fact, we learn about the characters through thinking about stories. So if you’re sick of trying to fix a story and some characters that just aren’t working, or the jokes aren’t coming, or the script is going nowhere, maybe it’s time to start over. In fact, it will probably save time in the long run, and get you to that script you can be proud of months earlier. Why not find out more on this video below?


  1. Re. The Italian Job. Charlie is doing the heist because the mafia murdered his friend who was planning the heist at the start of the film. He executes the heist to get rich, but primarily to steal the gold under the noses of the mafia and humiliate them.

    I thought his motivation was very clear. I even understood it when I first saw the film, decades ago, as a teenager.

  2. I enjoyed 'Soul', but was really confused by the final act. All through the film, they seemed to be planting elements, which would come together for him to realise that while music was his 'spark', his real purpose was to teach after all. But instead this was completely forgotten in the conclusion.