Breaking structure creates tremendous shock value-while maintaining the integrity of the message.
Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out succeeds on many levels. On the surface, the literal interpretation of this imperative commands us to high-tail it out of there and escape the horrors of an upstate New York estate. Underneath, the psychological implications of the narrative implore us to get out of our heads and stop focusing on keeping the peace to avoid further conflict. The former fulfills the prerequisites of a great horror film, the latter guarantees a long and lasting impression.
Achieving a 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is rare, yet predictable. Get Out grabs this honor not through style nor shock factor, but rather through an efficient and sophisticated narrative structure–a repeatable approach brought about by a solid Storyform.
A comprehensive and functioning storyform guarantees critical acclaim and widespread Audience approval.
How then does one explain the success of Get Out given that its director purposefully broke the storyform to assuage racial tension?
Deliver 98% of the message, and the Audience will finish the rest for you.
Get Out tells the story of photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) and his weekend spent meeting the mother and father of his girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) at her parent’s estate in upstate New York. Strange encounters with groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel) unlock an elaborate scheme of therapeutic hypnosis and brain surgery designed to prolong the lives of weak white people. Manipulating black victims into the “sunken place” to prepare them for transfer centralizes conflict in the Psychology Domain for the Objective Story Throughline with an emphasis, or Objective Story Concern in Conceptualizing.
Dark and foreboding Psychological Dramas like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Sunset Boulevard and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf share this common source of conflict in Psychology and Conceptualizing, placing Get Out in good company.
While the Armitage family works to balance the intellectual superiority of white people with the physical advantages of the black community, Chris holds himself back–participating in the modern tradition of African-Americans to blame a lack of agency on a system that just isn’t fair. Agreeing to produce a State I.D. when it isn’t warranted, merely for the sake of keeping the peace? Chris, like so many men and women in his position, fails to take action because of a Problem with Equity.
The Dramatica theory of story defines a Motivation of Equity as a balance, fairness, or stability. This effort to maintain balance because “shit isn’t fair” holds people back from solving personal problems. Sometimes–as Chris later learns–a little inequity is needed to move things forward. This drive towards Equity also reduces capable and productive members of society to sniveling and affable slaves, happy to keep peace with their masters at any cost–even if it means forgetting their true selves (a Story Cost of Memory).
The genius of Get Out lies in the connection between Chris’s issues and the issues suffered by the rest of the cast at the hands of the Armitage family. Both the Main Character Problem and Objective Story Problem share a similar focus on Equity.
When first introduced to the subtle racism of Rose’s family, Chris steps back and adapts–changing himself and accepting what he sees rather than doing anything to improve the situation. This mindset, that balance must be maintained, defines the nature of problems found in a Main Character Throughline of in Mind and sets a Main Character Approach of Be-er.
The Dramatica theory of story singles out two key story points to define the Character Arc of the Main Character: the Main Character Resolve and the Main Character Growth. The Resolve compares the end of the narrative to the beginning and asks Did the Main Character abandon an old paradigm, or did they remain steadfast to their original approach? The Growth determines the direction of movement–either away from their initial perspective or towards a new approach.
In Get Out, Chris exemplifies all the qualities of a Main Character with a Changed Resolve and a Growth of Stop. Chris is his own worst enemy–he needs to Stop thinking that his failure to act the night of his mother’s death resulted in some horrible karmic fate.
Chris’ initial therapy session with Mrs. Armitage explains the source of this justification and his Main Character Issue with Falsehood:
You said 'you knew something was wrong.' What did you do?
I just sat there. Watching TV.
You didn't call someone? Your Aunt or the police?
I don't know. I thought if I did, it would make it real.
This lie, or Falsehood, Chris told himself led to his mother’s death and generated the guilt he feels in regards to her passing.
The Solution for Chris is to remove this idea of “life isn’t fair” from the conversation with others and instead, use it to get out from under his justifications. He Changes by accepting that sometimes, accidents happen. Exiting the car to retrieve the fallen Georgina confirms this shift.
Unfortunately, by removing it from the broader perspective he allows justice and Equity to overwhelm the balance of conflict in the Objective Story Throughline. His actions–from bocce ball to stranglehold–fight fire with fire, confirming white America’s concept of the modern black man and the hidden racism underneath.
He rises to meet his fate on that windy road–
–only to find his best friend Rod (LilRel Howery) behind the flashing blue and red lights–
–not local authorities, as was originally shot and written.
The result is a defective Storyform and a strange cognitive dissonance that accompanies events incongruent with the story’s established purpose.
During an interview on the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, writer-director Jordan Peele explained the original ending for the film:
There is an alternate ending in which the cops come at the end. He gets locked up and taken away for slaughtering an entire family of white people and you know he’s never going to get out if he doesn’t get shot there on the spot.
This original ending fulfills the promise and intent of the narrative established in the Storyform throughout the rest of the film. Regardless of the social implications, the original intent behind the story flows concludes accurately with this alternate ending.
“we’re in this post racial world, apparently...we’ve got Obama so racism is over, let’s not talk about it. That’s what the movie was meant to address...if you don’t already know...racism isn’t over...the ending in that era was to say, look ‘You think race isn’t an issue? Well at the end, we all know this is how this movie would end right here.’”
Especially since everything that came before it was meant to support and argue that particular point-of-view. The idea that “racism is over” aligns with the Objective Story Problem of Equity–everyone thinks there is peace, when really, there isn’t–and that’s a problem.
This observation was Peele’s original intent for writing the story, and it shows with the progression of events and justifications present in each Throughline.
The Storyform contains the message of the Author’s original Intent. This dissonance between the original ending and the socially acceptable ending perfectly illustrates the mechanism underlying a functioning narrative.
Unlike other paradigms of story structure, the order of events in the Dramatica theory of story holds a specific meaning. In Snyder’s Save the Cat! series, beats, and sequences often fall out of place and line up in a different order depending on the film. Variations of the Hero’s Journey tend to play fast and loose with order as well. With Dramatica, order is everything.
Dialing in the Storypoints presented within the first 90 minutes–yet, leaving out these last few minutes–one is presented with two possible storyforms for Get Out:
Note: These Plot Progression are based on the Subtxt Narrative Engine March 2021, revision C. They differ significantly from the Progressions found in the original Dramatica application. While unknown to me when I had originally written this article (2017), the Progression predicted by Subtxt in 2021c synced up perfectly with my original thinking.
The Plot Progression of Get Out follows the second sequence–and aligns with Peele’s original intent. The first Act finds Chris trying to fit in with Rose's family, while Mr. and Mrs. Armitage set the stage for roping the young man into their diabolical scheme (Objective Story Transit 1 of Conceptualizing). The second Act finds best friend and TSA agent Rod coming up with ideas about white people hypnotizing black men to use as sex slaves, while Chris starts to get the idea that there is something strange going on with cellphone (Objective Story Transit 2 of Conceiving).
Andre Hayworth’s plea for Chris to “Get Out!” breaks the narrative in half and sets the pace for the downhill run.
Chris plays along as best he can as he tries to find a way out, while the Armitages keep up their charade of just being normal, friendly people--all the while closing in on him (Objective Story Transit 3 of Being). And finally, the fourth Act finds Chris transforming into the violent black man everyone assumes him to be, locking in the final Objective Story Transit 4 of Becoming.
Peele originally wrote a Story Outcome of Failure. And this narrative structure explains why we fully expect the doors to open and local authorities to emerge with guns drawn. Everything that led up to this moment required this ending to make sense of the narrative.
Seeing the bloodied and battered bodies of hopeless white people at the hands of a brutal and savage black person confirms what white America has always known–“Well, that’s just the way they are.” A mis-Understanding that finds its place within the storyform under the Story Consequence.
The alternate ending, available on both the DVD and iTunes Extras, extends this Understanding to Chris himself. Facing a Rod still intent on putting the pieces together, Chris tell him to back off–he understands that he’ll never get justice, but he doesn’t care–
–he beat them and more importantly, he beat the inner demons within himself.
The narrative concept of the Story Judgment asks Did the efforts to resolve the story's inequity (centered in the Main Character) result in a relief of angst? Did they overcome their issues? If they did, the Story Judgment is said to be Good; if not, the Story Judgment is Bad. In both the original and alternate endings, Chris overcame his problems by stopping the car and retrieving Georgina.
When you combine a Story Outcome of Failure with a Story Judgment of Good, you create a Virtuous Ending story. This ending is what Peele initially set out to create–yet failed to follow through with in the final film.
The fourth and final stage of communicating story from Author to Audience receives little attention from Dramatica or Narrative First. No less important than the first three, this stage known as [Story Reception] finds extensive coverage in numerous other sources too exhaustive to list.
Still, some subtle and sophisticated techniques of Reception find genesis within the first three stages of Storyforming, StoryEncoding, and Storyweaving–namely, the breaking of the storyform.
[Director] Peele noticed people were getting more upset and angrier with the deaths of black men like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, and he wanted to position the ending with Chris as a hero rather than a victim.
Peele plays against the expected Story Outcome of Failure by allowing Rod to put the pieces together and arrive at a Story Outcome of Success. In this way, the director works against Audience expectation by breaking the intended message. By sharing the same storymind Peele created throughout the entire message, the Audience expects Chris to land in jail–
–and applauds with exultation and applause when the film introduces a little inequity into their cinematic experience.
Understanding the key story points of a narrative makes it possible for an Author to play against Audience expectation and deliver something quite remarkable. By manipulating the Audience into expecting one outcome and providing another, writer/director Peele breaks structure to his–and our–advantage.
In some ways, this Inequity coincides with the storyform by giving us a clue as to how to put the pieces together towards a new concept of relating to one another. Instead of only showing us the current state of affairs and yet another account of a small and personal triumph, Peele offers us a vision of a way out...
..the triumph of the unimaginable.
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