Part One: The “Holy Shit!” Moment
I found myself standing before a room full of non-profit executives in New Jersey a few weeks ago, asked to talk about storytelling. I figured I should start by reviewing what a story is, but I can’t stand the “grand theories that explain everything” type of story analysis, so I reread or skimmed five books about screenwriting and mythology from my shelf and came up with my own list of story elements I more modestly called “Eleven Things Most Stories Have Always Had.”
It is beside the point of this post, but they are: 1. Main Character or Hero. 2. Exposition. 3. Unique Opportunity or “The Call.” 4. Major Theme. 5. A goal. 6. A dynamic character. 7. An antagonist. 8. Inner conflict. 9. Setbacks. 10. Divine intervention. 11.Climax.
One thing I omitted from my list on account of my audience – since I wasn’t talking to screenwriters, but to administrators – is the “Holy Shit!” moment. In a three act story, this is the moment in Act Two when things go from bad to worse. No matter how screwed your hero thinks he or she is, he realizes he’s much worse off than he ever imagined.
It’s the moment in Jaws when Brody sees the shark up close for the first time and can only stammer, “You’re going to need a bigger boat.” An even better example is the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy and her friends have finally gotten an audience with the wizard, and the wizard says, in essence: Did you see that witch who was threatening to kill you on your way here? Go get her broom!
Its delivery is better in Oz than in Jaws because you the viewer have been set up for it better. In Jaws it’s just a matter of scale: You knew it was a big shark, and now you know it’s a bigger shark. In Oz, that witch has been bothering your heroine on and off the whole time. You don’t know yet that the wizard is a big phony, so it’s an unimaginably cruel and impossible assignment straight into the heart of danger. “Holy Shit!” you figure. The one thing that you already know would be hardest for the main character to face is now the exact thing she’s facing.
When I’m reading a script, if it starts to lose me somewhere in the middle, I often suppose it can be fixed by adding a “Holy Shit!” moment. Suppose one of the hero’s friends turns against him. Suppose that kind old lady is also a zombie. Suppose the snitch has to run from the cops AND the drug gang now. Suppose the pilot passes out and now the woman who’s afraid of heights has to fly the airplane. It’s the moment when the plot hits the accelerator because:
1.the antagonist is worse than previously thought (the bigger shark); 2. now you’ve pissed that antagonist off; 3. a plain shitty set of coincidences has suddenly made things harder; or 4. by trying to fix things, your hero has inadvertently made things worse.
Of course ‘adding a “Holy Shit!” moment’ is like adding an earthquake to a landscape. It requires redefining two tectonic plates and repositioning the fault line to that moment. A good writer prepares the viewers for the “Holy Shit!” moment without letting on that they’re being set up, and then re-imagines the rest of the story based on the new reality.
When I am revising a story, I try not to read ahead. There is no future point where your story HAS TO go. There is only the present, and the one question you are always answering: What happens next?
There was a time, 1956 to be precise, when The Wizard of Oz hadn’t been on TV yet, and it was another well-liked, not altogether successful 17-year-old movie that most people still hadn’t seen. Even it had a present tense, and was full of surprises. I’m sure audiences reacted to the “Holy Shit!” moment the way the lion did.
Part 2: The Wizard of Oz As Shorthand For the American Mind.
I love baiting my screenwriter and playwright friends by telling them that The Wizard of Oz is the best film ever. As writers, what we appreciate in films is often the authorial voice: the director or the writer has a narrative plan, and takes us there one step at a time.
The Wizard of Oz had three directors and numerous credited and uncredited writers. It already had a long life as a book, in vaudeville, in films, and in sequels to all of the above. It had close to mythic status in that the public already knew the characters and gist of the story by 1939. All this in just 39 years: It was about as old as The Godfather is now.
I am guessing that there is already a body of psychobabbly theory about why it has become a shorthand, not just for screenwriters, but for all kinds of stories. The only book I’ve ever read about it is Salman Rushdie’s long essay for BFI Film Classics, which – apologies to the living literary saint – didn’t teach me very much.
You could say that the stars aligned over Culver City in ’38, and Harold Arlen, Yip Harburg, Judy Garland, Ray Bolger and Frank Morgan all happened to rattle off master works at the same time. You could also say that a handful of artists knew exactly when to put their foot down for something good within the studio system; they had to fight to keep “Over the Rainbow” from being cut, for example. You could also say it is a movie about something universal, a girl at the very end of girlhood. It is arguably the most sexually repressed story of all time, or possibly the most ingenious, under-the-radar celebration of sexuality ever put on film:
Dorothy looks like a 17-year-old dressed in her little sister’s clothes. A tornado (puberty) has sent her to a mystical land (adolescence), and she lands there literally bouncing on her bed. It’s no easy passage, however, and childhood doesn’t just give up. She has landed in Munchkin Land, a place where people live in permanent semi-childhood, and babies are hatched from eggs. The leading civic institutions are the Lullaby League and the Lollipop Guild. The munchkins practically worship a Good Witch, who visits by descending in a pristine ovum, but the Wicked Witch, the Satan of their cosmos, carries a disheveled broom, a surrogate pubic bush. Dorothy magically finds herself wearing the Wicked Witch’s ruby slippers (the blood of her deflowering), which the Witch naturally wants back. Since Dorothy just wants to go home, the Good Witch and munchkins cheerily send her off all by herself to the guy who can help, the Wizard of a color-coded city. On her way, she meets the Scarecrow, a sexless guy who joins her. If there is any doubt about his intentions, their first encounter with the Witch’s minions is a slap-fight with a grouchy apple tree, who refuses to let them taste the fruit. Instead of defying God and eating the fruit, as heroes do in myths around the world, they defy the fruit itself and provoke a fight with the tree, who throws its own apples at them as they run off. Dorothy and the Scarecrow, two of the greatest characters Hollywood ever imagined, get to have it both ways for a time: They tricked sexual maturity itself and got to wander deeper into the wide world of adults, while keeping their childhood camaraderie intact. Next they meet the Tin Man, with a habit of crying so much he rusts himself stiff. He is dad, more effective than a scarecrow, but nonetheless male and sexless all at once. Next they meet the Lion, the fully developed sexy guy, who immediately chases Dorothy around, ostensibly to eat her, but also by implication to rape her. Only he turns into an even mushier, simpering pile of pathos. The lion is the hair metal guitarist who tempts girls like Dorothy when they go to college. His greatest secret is that he promises pure physical sex but needs his hand held even more than the others do.
And that’s one of our greatest national myths, a perverse exercise in cruelty and crude sexual metaphors. It would lose steam once the lion joins the crew, so the writers upped the stakes temporarily with the poppies, followed by the the counter-narcotic offensive launched by the Good Witch, followed by the most definitive “Holy Shit!” moment in cinema.
Part 3: “Well! Bust my buttons!”
It turns out, Frank Morgan is buried at Green-wood Cemetery just a short stroll from my home. The man behind the curtain, who also played four other parts in the film, is with his family in their plot: the Wuppermann’s.