Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Structure of Elf

(Spoilers: Elf)

Last post I looked at the conceptual decisions writer David Berenbaum made when scripting the movie Elf. Now I want to explore the structure of the movie, but from the point of view of how it grows out of these conceptual decisions.

The main character of Elf is Buddy. This may seem obvious in hindsight, but there was actually another potential choice: Buddy’s biological father, Walter. Walter goes through the biggest arc of the movie and makes several critical decisions. And Elf is similar to a type of movie where a seemingly crazy outsider comes in and disrupts the main character’s life, ultimately causing them to be a better person. (Examples would include Anger Management, written by David Dorfman, and What About Bob, Story by Alvin Sargent & Laura Ziskin, screenplay by Tom Schulman.)

So actually making Buddy the main character is a bit unusual. But it’s a smart choice because Buddy is the one who’s a fish-out-of-water in this premise. I’ll take a more full look at Buddy’s character in the next post. For structural purposes, though, the important thing is that we identify Buddy’s want and need within this story. These will determine the external and internal storylines respectively and keep Buddy as the main character.

We should first look to the premise: this is the story of Buddy the elf looking for his father in New York. Ah ha – he wants to find his father. Not bad, but Mr. Berenbaum decided this is a story about family, not a search. So it’s not about finding his father, but rather winning his father’s love. (His need is to believe in himself, but I’ll deal with that more in my next post when I discuss the internal journey.)

For a story to be dramatic the character needs big obstacles. If Buddy finds his father and his father is happy to see him, then it’s all a little too easy, isn’t it? So Mr. Berenbaum decided that Walter should be an unloving guy, a bad father even to the son he does know – in the language of Christmas, he’s on the naughty list. That’s the primary obstacle.

(The major secondary obstacle also grows naturally from the premise: Buddy is a fish-out-of-water. He will have difficulty navigating New York. But this is secondary and we want our structure to come from the main character facing the primary obstacle.)

So given this conceptual foundation we should be able to determine organic structural beats. Buddy is a Christmas elf so his status quo is living in Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. We know Buddy wants to fit in so his dilemma must be that he doesn’t fit in. The Catalyst is when this dilemma is crystallized for the audience.

Q: What would best crystallize this dilemma for the audience?

A: Buddy learning that he’s actually human. And that happens about twelve minutes into the movie.

The Act One Turning Point may be a little trickier. It should be when our character is locked into the story, the point of no return. They must resolve their dilemma or suffer the consequences. In Elf, Buddy sets out to find his biological father, expecting to find a home where he will be accepted for who he is. The Act One Turning Point could have been when he sets out on his journey, but remember, this isn’t the story of a search, it’s the story of winning his father’s love.

Q: What would lock Buddy into the story of winning his father’s love?

A: His father refusing to accept that Buddy is his son. And sure enough, when Buddy shows up at Walter’s office around twenty-five minutes in, Walter thinks he’s crazy and kicks him out. Buddy now has to win over Walter or be doomed to unhappiness.

Next comes the fun and games section of the script. This is where the premise of an elf in New York is explored, with all the action at Gimbles. The next big structural beat we need is the Midpoint, a high point that should mirror the ending. Since, based on the conceptual decisions, we know the ending ought to be happy, we should ask:

Q: What victory could Buddy achieve that brings him part way toward his goal?

A: Walter could accept the fact that Buddy is his biological son. And this is what happens about halfway into the movie.

Mr. Berenbaum also wisely raises the stakes here by having Walter’s wife invite Buddy to stay with them, and by having Walter get in trouble at work. This gives him new material to develop as we approach the Act Two turning point. And we determine that beat by asking…

Q: What’s the worst thing that could happen to Buddy in the context of this story?

A: He’s kicked out of his human family. And sure enough, after Buddy ruins Walter’s meeting, Walter tells him to get out, that he wants nothing more to do with him.

Now we’re in Act Three. We see the aftermath of this event – Buddy loses hope. Now we need the epiphany, the thing that will show Buddy how to ultimately succeed.

Q: What does Buddy need to succeed?

A: He needs to believe in himself. And this happens when Santa tells Buddy that he trusts him to fix the sleigh. And shortly thereafter Walter finds Buddy and apologizes and tells him he loves him.

But we still need the big climactic resolution. We’ve already determined we want a happy ending. And since this is a Christmas movie, someone really ought to save Christmas, and that someone should be our main character. But we also need this resolution to relate to our main storyline. The way we find the resolution is to ask:

Q: How is Buddy’s dilemma resolved?

A: Walter accepts him.

But what represents acceptance? Walter’s already said he loves Buddy. But actions speak louder than words. Mr. Berenbaum wisely uses the Christmas spirit to test Walter’s acceptance and dramatize that it is real.

Buddy is full of Christmas spirit; Walter consistently rejects it. So the way we know Walter really accepts Buddy is when he sings along with the crowd at the end. And Mr. Berenbaum then found a way to have this action save Christmas by establishing that Santa’s sleigh is powered by Christmas spirit. Walter’s transformation gets Santa flying again. This is a good example of how it’s not just a matter of figuring out the correct structural beat, but figuring out how you’re going to dramatize that beat.

There you go, the structure of Elf. Not terribly complex, but it does have a nice cohesiveness that comes from the fact Mr. Berenbaum grew his structure organically from his underlying conceptual decisions.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: what would Elf's structural beats be if Walter was the main character? Do you think that movie would work as well as the one they made?

By the way, I’m curious what people think of this approach to analyzing structure. Was it helpful? Informative? Confusing? Please let me know in the comments section.



Carol said...

This was a super helpful way to look at the structure, Doug. It really brought some things into focus that have seemed slippery to me before. Thanks so much!

naomi said...

Very helpful! Now I'm just trying to double check my own story, which I worry isn't quite as clear.

Unknown said...

That was a helpful way to look at it, thanks.

One question - you say Buddy's dilemma is that he doesn't fit in. That's definitely his problem, but I've heard from a number of sources that for something to be a true dilemma, it should involve a choice between 2 equally unacceptable alternatives, not just a problem to be solved.

So in this case, would you say the dilemma is a choice between living a life where he doesn't fit in at the North Pole, vs. living a life where he doesn't fit in in N.Y.?

In reality, I don't see it as a real dilemma (where he's faced with it from early on and eventually forced to make a choice at the climax). But then it's a feel-good comedy, not a drama, so a "real" dilemma isn't really required.

Doug Eboch said...

John: Choices are good. Forcing the character to make a choice tells us if he's changed. And specifics are also good so the more specific the choice the better. But I don't think all dilemmas necessarily have to be a choice. In "Die Hard," for example, John McClane's dilemma is that terrorists have taken his wife hostage. There's not exactly a choice there, rather there's a problem to be solved. In "Elf" I'd say Buddy has a problem that he needs to solve. (Interestingly, Walter is forced to make a choice - save his job or save his family.)

Austin Cat! Lead said...

this was terribly helpful! thank you so much! it is an extremely sophisticated primer for study on a hit movie that was structurally sound and hit all the beats and was incredibly satisfying and entertaining...what this analysis does is force me to look at a story from a different angle and the perspective allows you to test the strength of your layers... I'm desperate for the next blog!!! because I can already tell that how you analyze it will become yet another primer for developing the inner journey!! You've no idea how often I quote you in writers groups meetings...and you were spot on about Notorious and the way the relationship is built in that... Hitchcock was the master of suspense- as such he took his time allowing the audience to get to know the characters and in doing totally bought into the romance... and I think the same can be said of Elf...we spent just enough time getting to know Buddy so that when his father rejects him...we root for Buddy and then totally buy it when the father finally accepts him...

Christmastopher Ford said...

Very much agree you simply need a problem to be solved. But it's always a dilemma at least a little bit because the hero could NOT try to solve the problem. McClain could run away!

And in Elf, it's all the more dilemma-y because he LIKES being an elf, he wants to stay in his comfort zone. He HAS an elf father. But he's a human. He's caught between worlds.

Two unacceptable alternatives: live as an outcast in the North Pole or live as a human without his beloved elf identity!