Dysfunctional Families and Their Stories

Stories of dysfunction are popular among writers who want to explore the conflict that can arise when the psychologies of characters clash. Nailing down exactly what those problems are and how best to dramatize them can be difficult, especially given the basic understandings of story prevalent today.

One popular sub-genre of dysfunction is that of the dysfunctional family.

Dysfunctional families experience difficulties because of psychological problems, problems that can’t be resolved by defeating a bad guy or winning a race. Their problems stem from the way the individual family members think, rather than what they say or do. A successful resolution to their problems will find the family functional once again–an outcome that will hinge upon the Goal of the story.

Determining the Story Goals of Dysfunction

Typically, when presented with a story like this the Goal has something to do with bringing the family back together. Whether that relies on maintaining the American dream as it is in American Beauty, or simply being the superhero family that they were born to be as it is in The Incredibles, the Goal of the story becomes less about what the Protagonist wants and more about overcoming the inequity at the source of the dysfunction.

How exactly does one determine the Goal of a story?

Story Goals are always about overcoming the inequity created by the Inciting Incident. The Goals of most Hollywood films are relatively easy to figure out because they are based on problems that require some kind of physical achievement by the characters in order to resolve them.

In Unforgiven there are some bad men that need killin’. In The Matrix humans need to gain the upper hand over their computer overlords. And in Casablanca there are two tickets of transit that spell freedom for a couple of lucky souls. External problems that require external solutions.

But what physical prize needs to be achieved in American Beauty, or Eat, Drink, Man, Woman or Little Miss Sunshine? For that matter, what about The Incredibles or Down n’ Out in Beverly Hills or even the classic Frank Capra comedy Arsenic and Old Lace? All these films tell stories of dysfunctional families, yet have no clearly delineated external Goal for the characters to reach.

With Brad Bird’s incredible The Incredibles one could argue that the Goal is to defeat Syndrome. But as discussed in the article Sophisticated Story Goals, pureeing the bad guy wasn’t enough–Violet had to take that final step and become a part of the family. With her force-field firmly in place, the dysfunctional Parrs became the functional Parrs, paving the way for them to finally enjoy Saturday juvenile sports just like all the other “normal” families.

Story Goals are not always about achieving things, yet they are always about resolving inequities. As Chris Huntley, co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story recently pointed out (source):

By definition, a Story Goal is a form of accomplishment. Do not confuse the nature of the story point with the methodology to reach it. Otherwise, EVERY goal would be an obtaining goal, and that does not accurately reflect the way many stories are intended. Part of the problem lies in our cultural bias. We tend to look at the end as the point, and not the means.

Thus, while a Goal may appear to be some sort of achievement, that accomplishment is not as important to the meaning of a story as the means to achieve it. In order to determine how a dysfunctional family might mend itself, it becomes necessary for one to address what exactly the inequity of a particular story really is.

Inequities of Dysfunction

In American Beauty, patriarch Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) is asked to put into words how his contribution to the workplace fits in. With that one Inciting Incident an inequity is created, an inequity of dysfunction that had been bubbling for years, an inequity that threatens the very stability of the Burnham’s perfect American fairytale family. The Goal isn’t about whether or not Lester sleeps with the 16-year old cheerleader (no matter how much he wish it were), it is something more psychological in nature. The only way to truly resolve the issues plaguing the Burnhams is for each character to put aside their own personal agendas and work to together to imagine a new concept of what their family life should be.

The same kind of inequity exists in the Richard Dreyfuss/Bette Midler comedy Down n’ Out in Beverly Hills, albeit a bit less melodramatic. Set squarely in the late 80s, the dysfunctional Whitemans family is beset upon by a bum (Nick Nolte) with an eye for the truth. Again, as with American Beauty, there is no bad guy to defeat, no treasure to be gained, and no mountain to be climbed, yet there is still this feeling that something is wrong. That feeling finds its source with the role each character feels they have to play. The maid as mistress, the dutiful mother who would rather be anything else, the son who floats from filmmaker to glam-rocker in an attempt to express himself– each of these are acts of pretense that must be put aside in order for the Whitemans to overcome their dysfunction.

In the slapstick classic Arsenic and Old Lace, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) discovers that his two sweet aunts are really homicidal maniacs. Learning that his family’s dysfunction extends far beyond just younger brother Teddy’s delusions of grandeur (he thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt), Mortimer begins scheming and manipulating those around him based on the concern that he might, in fact, become mad like the rest of them. Avoiding this insane transformation is the only way the inequity of the story can be resolved, especially when a second dead body turns out not to be the work of his aunts, but rather his older brother, Jonathan!

Three different stories (four if you count The Incredibles), three different genres, yet they all focus the dramatic eye on the same kind of inequity– problematic ways of thinking.

So How Does It All Turn Out?

In The Incredibles everything worked out for the Parrs. Down n’ Out In Beverly Hills? The Whitemans awake from their wild party sans makeup, both real and psychological. The dysfunctional family now fully functional.

Arsenic and Old Lace? The aunts, along with both brothers, are carted away to the insane asylum. But more importantly Mortimer learns that he was adopted, and that the chances of he and his blushing bride creating offspring as wild and crazy as these nutbags disappears as quickly as it had come. That fear of becoming just like them has dissipated, and with it the inequity of the story.

American Beauty, unfortunately, does not have such a rosy ending.

Whether you look at Lester’s tragic demise, or his wife Carolyn who discovers far too late how great he really was, or the Colonel who can’t quite find a way to make who he really is fit into the concept of what he thinks he should be, the inequity of the story persists. The story is a failure, and if it weren’t for Lester’s cheerful take on the whole thing it would have been seen as a tragedy the likes of Se7en or Hamlet.

The Trouble with Dysfunction

The psychology story is an opportunity for an Author to explore issues of a different feather, issues left untouched by the majority of Hollywood films.

Why is that?

Those in the West rarely examine the way they go about reaching conclusions. They have no problem questioning their actions or the actions of others, but when it comes to matters of psychology they most often are not quite sure what it is they are dealing with. Confused as to the very nature of the story within their hands, they label it a personal drama story or feel the work in question if far too eclectic for common tastes.

In reality, the resistance shows itself in those who are uncomfortable with the thought that the way they go about coming up with ideas may in fact be fraught with issues and inequity.

The dramatists purpose, then, is to reveal it to them.

Advanced Story Theory for this Article

Stories of dysfunctional families often find their Objective Story Throughlines in Psychology. In contrast to stories found within the Mind domain, OS Psychology stories explore the problems that arise from the way people think, rather than what they think.

Diving down further one finds the four Concerns of Psychology: Conceptualizing, Conceiving, Being and Becoming. Recent versions of the software offer users simpler terms to replace them. Conceptualizing becomes Developing a Plan, Conceiving becomes Conceiving and Idea, Being becomes Playing a Role and Becoming becomes Transforming One’s Nature. While these new “layman” terms might be easier for the newbie to grok, they tend to narrow down and obfuscate what is really happening at this level. As with all things Dramatica, understanding what the terms truly mean becomes more important than the terms themselves.

Down n’ Out and The Incredibles find their OS Concerns in Being. Arsenic and Old Lace in Becoming. American Beauty finds the source of its difficulties in Conceptualizing.

One of the more compelling ideas to come out of Dramatica is the notion that a particular Story’s Goal will be similar in nature to the OS Concern.

In The Incredibles this means the Parr family has to Be themselves in order to overcome the inequity of the story. In Down n’ Out they simply have to stop Be-ing. In Arsenic and Old Lace Mortimer needs to stop trying to Become like his adoptive family. And in American Beauty Lester and Co. need to Conceptualize a new model of the American family.

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