Wednesday, July 15, 2020

The Hero's Journey in Legally Blonde

A few years ago, I put together a lecture for the Colorado State Thespian Conference on the hero's journey in Star Wars. I broke down the movie into its major plot beats and showed how they match up with the three-act structure first laid out by mythologist Joseph Campbell and further developed by screenwriters Christopher Vogler and Blake Snyder, among others.

It was the most popular class I ever taught, drawing over a hundred kids in a room set up for a couple dozen. I was looking forward to teaching it again, but less than a year later I moved to Arizona. Unfortunately, I've been unable to get myself on the staff of the Thespian Conference here.

But the lesson lives on. And that's because my post where I share my PowerPoint from the class has recently become my most popular post.

So I thought people might be interested in the other part of the class, the part where I applied the same structure to the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film Legally Blonde.

Why this movie? Well, most writing students already know that the Hero's Journey works for testosterone-driven action and sci fi films like Star Wars. I wanted to show that it works just as well for something funny and light like this beloved girl power comedy.

My breakdown of Legally Blonde is shown in the chart above. Feel free to download it as a JPG by clicking on the chart itself or download a PDF version by clicking on this link.

Looking at it you'll notice that, unlike a lot of writing teachers, I don't dictate a page count for each of the story beats. After all, some very successful movies play fast and loose with the generally accepted ones (Star Wars itself takes 40 of its 125 minutes to get to the first beat).

But there's one key caveat. If you take too long to get to that next beat, you risk committing the only real sin of writing: boring your audience.

And yes, some teachers include several more beats, but I wanted to keep my template simple for the beginning writers I usually teach. Trust me, if you can cover these seven beats in your story, you're well on your way to crafting a compelling, structurally sound tale.

So let's jump in and see how the irrepressible Elle Woods forges her journey:

1) Catalyst--This is the beat that gets the whole story started. Some beginning writers confuse the Catalyst (or Inciting Incident or Call To Adventure, as some teachers call it) with Accepting The Challenge, but there's an easy way to keep them straight. The Catalyst is something that happens TO the hero. Accepting The Challenge is what the hero DOES in response to the Catalyst.

There are two ways to play the Catalyst. Some movies, like Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, starts with the Hero in a negative status quo, i.e. a world in which the Hero is already suffering (Charlie's poverty). In this case, the Catalyst takes the form of a positive opportunity for the Hero, something that will allow the Hero to break out of the status quo and build a better life (e.g. the Golden Ticket).

A more common--and effective--way is to start the Hero in a positive status quo, a world in which the Hero has everything they need to be happy. The Catalyst then becomes something that upends that situation, snatching that perfect world away from the Hero.

The second path is the one that Legally Blonde takes. As the film starts, Elle Woods is well on her way to a SoCal version of nirvana. She has rich parents, a newly minted degree in fashion merchandising (my daughter looked into it once, it's much harder than it sounds), great friends, and the world's most eligible bachelor as her boyfriend. All she has to do is get that boyfriend to propose and the rest of her life will be bliss.

But Warner doesn't propose. In fact, he dumps her, making it all too painfully clear that he considers her unworthy of him. Elle is devastated. Her dreams of a "happily ever after" are destroyed.

2) Accepting The Challenge--This beat is the Hero's response to the Catalyst. And Elle goes big. Despite a (perceived) lack of smarts and a lifestyle that's been centered on swimming pools and the latest fashions, she's determined to follow Warner to Harvard and get her own law degree.  For this, she's convinced, is how she's going to prove to Warner that's she worthy of him and win him back.

As audience members, we already know this is a bad goal. Warner's a jerk. We don't want Elle to get back with him, now or ever. But we know this is part of the growth path she needs to follow to get to her True Happiness, so we go along with her.

Elle now enters the first half of Act Two, what Save the Cat's Blake Snyder called the Fun & Games section. Free of any real cost to her decision, she gets to explore all the ways that her new world (Harvard) is different from her old world (SoCal). This is always the funniest part of a movie, as it gives us a chance to see our Hero make a fool of herself as she flounders around trying to learn (or fighting against) the rules of this new world.

3) Stakes Are Raised--Also called the Midpoint or Turning Point, this is where things get serious. The fun and games are over. Now the hero really has something to lose.

In the movie, Elle goes to the Halloween party to win back Warner, only to be rejected one last time. After he shoots down her plan to get an internship, saying she's just not smart enough, she finally realizes she's never going to be be good enough for him.

In my class, I argued that this was one of the weaker beats in the movie since Elle's stakes aren't raised in any meaningful way. One of the students pushed back, claiming that this defeat provides Elle with the motivation she needs to succeed. But, as I pointed out, things really haven't changed for her. As audience members, we always knew she would never get Warner back. And sure, maybe she'll work a little harder now. But she's already working pretty hard in her classes.

Blake Snyder once observed that a lot of writers think the most important beat is the Inciting Incident or the Climax, but it's really the Midpoint. The whole movie revolves around this beat. The other beats are about what happens. This beat tells you why they matter.

When I first read this, it was like the heavens opened up. It changed my whole approach to writing. No longer did I dread the long hard slog of Act Two. Instead, I relished the challenge of coming up with a turning point that would raise my story to a whole new level.

In fact, the Midpoint is such an important beat, you could almost say it launches a whole new act, with the second half of Act Two becoming Act Three, and Act Three becoming Act Four.

A four-act structure? Why not? After all, a lot of films break their stories into four different worlds, with the middle two worlds occupying the Second Act. Legally Blonde does it with Southern California, Harvard, the law firm, and the courtroom. Star Wars does it with Tatooine, the Millennium Falcon, the Death Star, and the X-Wing Fighter.

If you think of the Midpoint as an act break, then you've split the three acts into four. And making the Midpoint an act break should really hammer home how life-changing this beat needs to be.

Still wondering if you've raised the stakes enough in your story? Then ask yourself one thing. What does your hero stand to lose now that they didn't before?

If the answer is nothing, rework it. Your readers (if not your hero) will love you for it.

4) All Is Lost--After the struggles of Act Two, your hero should lose it all at this critical beat. All Is Lot is where the mentor often dies, as when (spoiler alert!) Obi Wan Kenobi is killed by Darth Vader. Killing off the mentor is a highly effective story choice as it forces your hero to prove themselves by fighting their final battle alone.

But you can't have a death in a romantic comedy, so what do you do? You find another way to get rid of the mentor.

Legally Blonde handles this extremely well. After Elle gets the internship, Callahan becomes her mentor--and he's a good one. He teaches her how to do research. He teaches her how to build a case. Most importantly, he teaches her how to think like a lawyer.

Unfortunately, this all comes tumbling down when Callahan tries to seduce her. Not only does this convince Elle that no one will ever respect her for her brain, it also makes it impossible for her to work with him any longer. The relationship, if not the mentor, is dead.

5)  Final Push--Here the hero picks herself up, dusts herself off, and makes one last attempt to achieve her goals. And this time she has to do it alone. Or at least without her mentor. In most movies, the hero has allies she can lead into battle.

Elle does this by taking the lead of Brooke's defense team. Emmett may be guiding her, but it's up to Elle to win or lose for her client. She's the one who argues the case. And she's the one who makes the observation that finally turns the case her way.

For more on this, read on...

6) Final Victory--And now for the payoff. The hero succeeds, finally achieving their goal. But there's a little more to it than that--and it's all in the way they win.

As we know, the hero of every story must follow an arc. They start out being one thing (Act One), and through the lessons learned from their mentor, and the battles they've fought with their allies, they become something else (Act Two).

In Act Three, they may even reject their old self and attempt to achieve their goal based on their new skills only. But they only succeed when they combine something about their old self and their new self.

Star Wars does this. Luke starts the movie with mad piloting skills. In Act Two, he learns to use the Force. But when he gets to Act Three, he loses confidence in his ability to use the Force and relies solely on his piloting skills to destroy the Death Star. He quickly discovers that's not enough. He keeps missing the target. It's only when he combines his new self--the Force--with his old self--the Pilot--that he hits the target and succeeds in blowing up that massive space weapon.

Legally Blonde does something similar but opposite. At first, Elle tries to win the trial by being her new self--a quick-thinking, hard-nosed defense attorney. But it's not enough. Her legal arguments are going nowhere. Only when she combines that new self with her old self--a beauty expert--does she recognize that Brooke's stepdaughter must be lying about washing her freshly permed hair.

Not every movie does this. But if you want to make your story the best it can be, you're going to want to find a way to have your hero combine their two selves.

7) Final Reward--Now the hero gets to revel in their victory. But the main point of this beat is not to show how the hero revels. It's to show how much they've changed.

Elle has definitely changed. No longer the bubble-headed blonde who only cares about looking good and landing a wealthy husband, Elle is now a successful lawyer who has proven herself to everyone by graduating it the top of her class.

She has achieved her True Happiness. But, as in the best of these endings, it's a very different happiness than what she pictured in Act One. This is made painfully clear at the end when Warner asks her to take him back--and Elle rejects him. What better way to show how much she's changed?

I know a lot of writers reject templates like these, thinking it inevitably leads to formulaic stories. And yes, if you follow them blindly, it can lead to a story that's completely predictable and dull. But that's your job as a writer: finding new ways to make those old structures work.

After all, they've been used to tell stories for thousands of years, so much so that they've become a part of our DNA. Who are we to change them?