The purpose of story structure is to provide an audience with meaning. When done right, as it is with this film, the story engine leaves a lasting impression of the message the Authors hoped to convey.
When screenwriting gurus or even screenwriters themselves discuss story structure they often focus on “willful protagonists” and “progressive complications” and “powerful image systems.” What they rarely explore, however, is why these things even exist in the first place. Why do stories have acts? Why do characters have arcs? Isn’t it worth exploring the answers to these questions?
Structure and Meaning
Story structure developed as a means of communicating the appropriate way to solve problems. Stories are about solving problems. Acts, scenes, characters, genre—all of these are tools for arguing the right solution that would solve these problems. This, of course, assumes that the Author’s intention was to use film to argue a certain point-of-view. In other words, they have something to say.
You Don’t Know Jack is one of these films.
In YDKJ, problems exist because of a preponderance of protection, i.e. everyone is trying to save someone else (whether they want it or not). Dr. Kevorkian is trying to save the elderly and infirm from suffering through a slow and painful death. Likewise, the conservative prosecutor Dick Thompson and his like-minded constituents feel driven to protect the very same elderly and sick from losing their souls to “Dr. Death.”
These two forces clash in a way that would not happen if everyone wasn’t driven to save. If the characters in the story would simply back off and not take any action, the problems would work themselves out.
This can be seen midway through the film when the assistant prosecutor turns to Thompson and refuses to press any charges. From there on, conflict between the two warring parties cools down. If this approach was somehow maintained, the problems in the story would have remained resolved and the story would have ended with Kevorkian victorious.
But this is not what happens.
With the broadcasting of Youk’s procedure on 60 Minutes, the prosecutor is re-energized to protect his constituents and takes Kevorkian to court once again.
Good Guys and Protagonists
YDKJ is a tragedy and by that I mean a story where the good guys lose and the Main Character ends up feeling unresolved (More about this particular brand of story structure can be found in my article on writing tragedies). Regardless of your personal feelings on the matter, in this story, Kevorkian is the “good guy.”
Without a doubt, screenwriter Adam Mazer and director Barry Levinson consider Kevorkian the good guy and Thompson and his religious-zealot cronies as the bad guys. If there is one complaint to be had about the film it is how unevenly balanced the euthanasia argument is. We know that Thompson and his crew are the bad guys (if for no other reason than their gold-plated elephant lapel pins), but unfortunately they get less than their fare share of equal screen time. The story still works, the argument simply would have been stronger if one side wasn’t shown to be so adamantly crazy.
In 99.999% of all stories the good guys are also the Protagonists. This film is no exception. Kevorkian is the Protagonist in pursuit of the larger Story Goal—that of convincing everyone of the idea that euthanasia should be a basic human right. Protagonists always pursue the goal, Antagonists prevent it. Thompson and Co. are the “bad guys” and thus, the Antagonists of this piece.
Kevorkian fights the good fight, has his victories here and there, but ultimately loses the battle and fails to accomplish the greater goal. What is most fascinating about this (and the impetus for writing this analysis) is that it is his transformational change at the end of the story that leads to that ultimate failure. In other words, he was on the right track for success, but because of the story’s events he ended up taking the wrong approach.
More often than not when a Main Character changes, the results are positive. Think of Star Wars or The Matrix. In both those films, the Main Character’s transformation is the key to solving the larger problems affecting everyone. Luke stops testing himself all the time (“I’m not such a bad pilot myself”) and begins trusting in the Force—the Death Star explodes. Neo stops doubting himself and begins to believe he is the One—Agent Smith and friends are defeated. This is the natural order of things when it comes to Hollywood blockbusters.
Thankfully, HBO offers us a different alternative.
The dynamics are different when the Main Character’s change results in the story ending in failure.
In his role as Protagonist, Kevorkian constantly pushes the idea that you just can’t sit around and do nothing when people are suffering. True, he was driven to protect others but what he focused on in the larger scheme of things was this notion that doing nothing cannot be an option. If he hadn’t changed, this methodology would have led to success, i.e. the idea of euthanasia would have been embraced as a human right. Remember, from the Author’s point-of-view Kevorkian was on the right track.
This is where an audience finds meaning within the ending of a story and why the story’s structure supports that argument. It is also why I believe this film will touch many emotionally. It’s something more than simply a biopic. Kevorkian had the solution, he was doing the right thing, but his change of character allowed the problem to persist and the tragedy to ensue. The story structure communicates the message that by doing nothing we are ensuring a tragic ending.
In tragic stories like this, the Main Character takes that positive element they were using in the larger fight and uses it to temper their own drive.
Writing That Inspires
This dynamic is no more apparent than in that beautifully acted scene at the end where Kevorkian must decide whether or not to take the stand in his own defense. The dilemma, that choice he must make, is the stuff most screenwriters dream of crafting—the classic Leap-of-Faith scene no less meaningful than Luke’s decision whether or not to turn off his targeting computer. The Main Character is driven to a point where they can’t determine which approach to take.
And that’s why Pacino’s performance is so awesome in this scene: he had something meaningful to work from. If the story had been structured poorly, or that decision pointless, that scene would have had less of an impact. But it doesn’t. Pacino masterfully struggles with it because he knows what that decision ultimately means.
When Kevorkian chooses not to take the stand, he is in essence saying that he is giving up the fight. He is no longer letting the drive to protect dictate his actions, and he is intentionally not doing anything as a way of resolving those deep psychological issues he had because of his experience with his mother.
By taking that characteristic, that solution to everyone’s problems out of the mix, he allows the “bad guys” to win. This is where structure elevates acting and where films move beyond simple devices of entertainment.
Writing Something Meaningful
If you have something to say, effective story structure can help you say it. Films like You Don’t Know Jack clearly show that there is more to storytelling than story room catchphrases. Act changes, inciting incidents, character arcs—all of these have a purpose to serve in the ultimate message of a movie. Understanding why they exist can help writers and filmmakers communicate their message with authority.
Advanced Story Theory for this Article
Both Main Character and Objective Story explore the Problem of Protection. This forces a Solution of Inaction for both and is the key to understanding the meaning behind Kevorkian’s change at the end of the film. That Crucial Element of Inaction is moved from the Objective Story into the Main Character’s throughline. This has the effect of dampering the Main Character’s drive at the expense of the Objective Story resulting in Failure. This Change, however, does nothing to resolve Kevorkian’s angst and thus results in a Story Judgment of Bad. Failure/Bad = Tragedy.
Interestingly enough, YDKJ shares the same Objective Story Issue as Up In The Air: Expediency. This is a great example of why the Dramatica model is not formulaic or restrictive. Both films are exploring the issues surrounding what happens when people do what they think they SHOULD do. Up In The Air explores replacing the human touch with the convenience of the Internet and You Don’t Know Jack explores using euthanasia to save the dying. Two completely different takes on the same Objective Issue, two completely different experiences.
The Impact Character in this film is relatively weak. Like The Hurt Locker from last year, a complete story structure exists but it is barely painted in there. John Goodman’s character is the closest thing to an alternative perspective, although Kevorkian’s sister supplies some of that as well. Their argument though doesn’t really kick in until the scene with the old Navy man and attempt to conserve gas. While it may not have been historically accurate, bringing that argument about protecting themselves in earlier would have made the story stronger.
Storyform Essentials: Change, Start, Do-er, Male, Decision, Optionlock, Failure, Bad, Psychology, Conceiving, Expediency, Protection