Monday, January 25, 2016

What “The Intern” Can Teach Us About Keeping Our Story Promise

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

My husband and I watched the movie, The Intern, the other night. The first half was great—funny, sweet, unexpected. Then it veered off track and turned into a different movie. Not so funny. Not so sweet. Only unexpected in that it made you say, “Whaa? What happened?”

It forgot the story promise it made to its viewers.

Note: Spoilers ahead, as I can’t talk about why this is an issue without giving things away. But it won’t really spoil the ending, because sadly, the ending, spoiled the ending.

The premise is super cute: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) has discovered that retirement isn't all it's cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway).

Jules is focused, driven, yet deeply cares about her company and clients. The first time we meet her she’s dealing with a customer service call and going above and beyond to help—she even gives the woman her cell number (classic example of “show likable and redeeming quality”). Her story problem is that her company took off so fast she can’t keep up, and her investors want to hire a CEO to run her company for her. They lack faith in her abilities (classic problem: “can she learn how to be a CEO in time?”).

Ben just wants to feel useful again and be part of something. He’s steady and calm, friendly, and doesn’t miss a thing. He’s not there to prove anything, just do a good job and not sit around all day. He’s a well waiting to be tapped (classic mentor role).

The tagline for this movie is: Experience Never Gets Old. You can totally see where this is going.

A Clear Story Promise

Multiple times Ben’s 40 years of business experience is mentioned. Multiple times Jules’ lack of business experience is mentioned. We see her taking on too much and not delegating, not using the valuable resources of people she has gathered around her. We see Ben see this. We see him want to help.

Clearly, this is a movie where Ben is going to help Jules learn what she needs to learn so she can prove to her investors that she is indeed the right person to run her company. Ben’s need to be part of something (he worked for the same company for 40 years) firs perfectly with Jules’s company. This is a place he can do that.

Reinforced by Clear Story Themes

At first, this is on track. We see her reject Ben as her personal intern (classic “reject the opportunity”). We see her slowly accept him as he continues to do his job and be what she needs. We see him anticipating her needs and taking some of the stress off her shoulders.

This is all mixed in with elegant subplots around Ben’s “fish-out-of-water” role of the old guy in the young world. The interplay with his younger peers is wonderful. Every relationship he has works with the movie’s experience theme. We see Ben helping those around him in the same way we know he can help Jules if she’d just let him. It’s working beautifully—the subplots enhance the main storyline, and we’re waiting for Jules to take that step. Cheering for her to do it.

And then it goes wonky.

Where it Went Wrong

Part of Jules’s stress is a stay-at-home-dad husband who stopped working to care for their daughter when Jules’s company took off. There are some issues there, which is fine as it gives Jules motive and stakes. Jules wants to do right by everyone, and this tears her in too many directions. Her big decision is whether or not she’s going to hire a CEO and let someone else run her company, or find a way to grow into this role she wants.

It’s great. We want to see what she’ll choose, we want to see if she’s learned enough to use her resources and grow. We want to see Ben help her, and see how Jules uses his experience in her own unconventional way.

Except that somewhere in the back half of act two, Ben discovers Jules’s husband is having an affair, and the entire movie forgets itself and changes the story.

After that, the plot no longer focuses on Ben helping Jules to become the CEO she needs to be, to delegate and use the amazing and talented people she’s put together. To use his experience to keep her company hers. It’s about whether or not she can forgive her cheating husband, because she loves him, and it’s her fault he cheated because she works so much, and a CEO means she can be a better wife, and she doesn’t want to lose him or her company, but she still wants to run things the way she feels is right.

And in the end, she forgives the husband (don’t even get me started on this—that’s a whole other gender-issues post), she decides to not hire the CEO, and keeps doing what she’s been doing.

Why it Didn't Work

At the end of the movie, Jules is EXACTLY where she started. She’s still running the company as always, and maybe having Ben around gives her someone to talk to and rely on, but she learned nothing from this experience. She’s exhibited zero skills to help her be a better CEO and satisfy her investors, who will probably boot her out and take over her company because she can’t do what they asked her to do. The core conflict of the movie was NOT RESOLVED. Just postponed.

Ben never gets to be her mentor, he’s more a father figure for Jules (who has lousy parental figures). His experience is actually wasted, so instead of being useful to the person who needs him most, he’s a nice guy Jules can go to when she needs a hug. He gives her a little advice, but it’s a token of what the setup promised. His business experience was supposed to help her become a better business woman. Not, his age was going to be a comfort to her in times of stress.

The movie’s climax and resolution had nothing to do with the story question posed at the start of the movie. Even the decision to hire the CEO or not wasn’t based on her ability to handle the job, it was should she do it to save her marriage. A choice that makes no sense, cause why not hire the guy if she needs to spend more time at home?

If Jules had no family whatsoever, the plot still worked. Her family wasn’t the problem keeping her from being the CEO her company needed. Her lack of experience was.

The minor marriage subplot hijacked the entire movie and drove it off a cliff.

What We Can Learn From The Intern’s Mistakes

1. Keep your story promise:
If you set up a beautiful story, and clearly show what your story is going to be about, don’t decide in the final act to switch core conflicts.

2. Remember what your core conflict is:
Your story is trying to solve a single problem (even if it’s complex). Make sure your ending resolves that problem using the skills and lessons learned over the course of the novel.

3. Don’t let subplots hijack the real story:
Subplots are shiny, they’re fun, and they’re often filled with emotions. But they’re not the point of the novel.

Readers trust us to keep our promises and give them the story we agreed to tell them.

Have you seen The Intern? What did you think? Do you know any other stories that failed to keep their promises?

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I absolutely agree. I was so disappointed at the end of the story, I thought that I had missed something. It started out so very good and then just fell off a cliff. I felt that as long as Robert Deniro has been acting, he should have notices that the movie took a wrong turn and if he couldn't get them to see it, not done the movie. If it had been done by an okie-doke then I probably would not have liked it but would have dismissed the movie all together, instead I told my friends and family not to waste their time with this movie. Very disappointed.

    1. It did break my heart a little since it started out so well.

  2. It's something any story can fall into. Pick out a "general" concept with a set of plotlines, and then a "strong specific arc" that's supposed to do the heavy lifting-- and then either the first sags or in this case the second doesn't fit with what it's set up. (Of course it's worse in Hollywood, where one person can decide to "change half the story" and not clean up the mess he leaves.)

    That "general many issues, then one strong one" approach to planning confilcts is all too tempting a model to use in writing. It looks like it covers all the bases... but it's too likely to come apart if you aren't careful.

    1. True. I wonder if the original draft worked, but somewhere some bigwig decided it needed to be more about the marriage and it took a bad turn.

  3. Just saw the film myself. Rented it on TV. Glad I didn't pay to watch it in the theater. Although I didn't question as many of the problems as noted here, when it reached the end my reaction was "what???" It's like overhearing two people in an interesting conversation and then they walk away right when it might have been good.

    1. Exactly. It's a great movie for most of it, then it just flops. So sad!

  4. Wow, that is awful. I'm so glad I didn't see this movie.

    I could also do a whole article on how women's stories always revert to "will they keep their man?" instead of being able to have their own independent journey.

    1. It really made my blood boil. The more I think about it, Ken (above) is probably right. Someone came in and messed with the script. I bet it worked when they started shooting.

  5. It did seem like the movie kind of peetered out in the end. This is one of those movies where everyone is shown being all happy and smiley at the end of the movie and we're supposed to leave the movie feeling that everything was fixed, even if it wasn't.

    1. Exactly. And you just know it all falls apart within the month.

  6. Haven't seen The Intern, but the TV series Lost was a great example of this!! For seasons, they set up this wonderful mystery, then towards the end it all went off the rails. Rather than "Will they survive on this crazy, mysterious island?" the question towards the end became "Was this all a dream, was it real, what just happened here??" Never resolved all the weird stuff that happened, to my mind...stories like that make me nuts, lol!

    1. I read an article somewhere that said after the first episode, viewers were guessing "they're dead and it's purgatory!" and that was the truth. The creators were so bummed and surprised it was figure out in the first episode they decided to change it and never actually recovered.

      I don't know if that's a true story or not, but it sounds reasonable enough to be real :)

      I'm with you, there. I dislike those "oooo mysterious stuff, will we ever know the truth?" stories. Mystery, sure, bring it on, but give me a solid resolution.