Where's My Family? Give Me Back My Family!

September 28, 2011

Cliched plot device with Cuba and Bill O'Reilly
(Inspired by This post on Script Shadow. A screenwriting blog I highly recommend.)

A character needs a goal or goals. They need to be important or have some meaning (the stakes). And he/she can't have forever to accomplish it (urgency).

A lot of stories have clear goals and stakes, but no urgency, so they'll often introduce "the ticking clock." For example, American Pie is based around trying to get laid before graduation. Does it really matter if they don't get some before graduation?

No urgency, goals, or stakes? Then point a gun at the main character or his family.

Movies can be about cloning, sports, romance, sexcapades, virtual reality, breaking into dreams, hitmen, space adventures, conspiracies, war, or whatever the hell Donnie Darko was about, but it's alarming to me how often films about such varied topics essentially boil down to "I have to save my wife/kids."

Fucking Monogamous-Heterosexual Patriarchy.

Can we seriously not think of any goals that are about more than creating/protecting/avenging the family?

Let's break it down.

Wouldn't it be great if he knocked the pie up and
they got married then their fritter got kidnapped?
Creating Family - This would include shit like American Pie, any movie where the goal is nothing more than to get the girl.

Protecting Family - Air Force One is a good example, as is most Harrison Ford movies. The MC's wife and kid is kidnapped and he has to find a way to get them back alive in the next 90 minutes.

Avenging Family - The Fugitive is a good example here. Harrison Ford's wife is murdered, he is wrongfully convicted, and when he busts out he tracks down the guy that did it. There are countless "Revenge plots" out there. Often the Avenge plot is given to a kid who seeks vengeance for his parents.

With those three subsets of the "Family" goal, you'll find a shockingly high number of films fit it.

I'll use Inception as an example. While it's about a reverse heist, planting an idea in someone's mind, ultimately for the main character, the goal is to get back to his kids in America and that's why he pulls the job. I think this detracts from the film since it rings so hollow. We don't ever see the kids but for a few glimpses and they just seem like boring-ass kids to me. Do you think the film is better because Cobb is trying to get back to his kids? The goal of the heist was to convince a mogul to break up his father's empire. What if the heist had a better goal that the audience and the main character was more invested in. Then we wouldn't need to tack on the kids.

To illustrate my point, I'm going to go through IMDB's top films and look for positive rather than negative examples. Think about the main character's goals in these films.

1. Shawshank Redemption - For a while you think this would be an Revenge plot, but it never pays off. This film is a bit of a mystery since it really doesn't have goals for most of the time. Andy has goals, but the audience isn't let in on it till after the fact.

2. The Godfather - The main character wants to stay out of the family business but it keeps bringing him back in. His woman isn't down with it so it creates a dilemma. So the family aspect is pulling on him from both sides, but nobody kidnaps his wife, so I'm going to check this one in my column.

3. Godfather Part II - Again, this film is ABOUT family, but the goal isn't so simple as "save my kidnapped wife." And again, family is tugging on the main character from both sides.

4. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - It's been so long since I've seen this, IIRC it's really about money.

5. Pulp Fiction

6. 12 Angry Men 

7. Schindler's List

8. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

9.The Dark Knight - Here's the first film on the list that really fits into the cliche's I was talking about, and again it's Christopher Nolan. He's notorious for using female characters as basically 1-dimensional motivators for the main character. Also, this film should fall down the list as scores tend to decrease over time.

10. LOTR - The Return of the King - While I don't think it deserves to be anywhere near this high, you won't find a family plot for Frodo.

11. Inception - see above

12. The Empire Strikes Back - Ah, a good example. Luke is the main character and his goal in the film is to become a jedi, confront his nemesis, save his friends (Leia is his sister, but he doesn't know that yet...). While his friends are held hostage, this doesn't become the storytelling engine for quite some time into the film.

13. Seven Samurai 

I just want to get a nice house in the
burbs with her and make her squeeze out my runts.
14. Fight Club - Another great example. This is my favorite film. What's the main character's goal? Well at first it's to be able to sleep. Then it's to "hit bottom." Ultimately it's about searching for meaning and a purpose in a flaccid consumerist society. This is about the ultimate example of how to not make a cliche plot. Yes there is a love interest, but she wants to have his abortion.

15. Goodfellas

16. Star Wars - Superb plot about becoming a man, confronting evil, and adventure. Sure there's sort of a romantic tension going on, but there's not even a kiss on the lips in this film IIRC.

17.  LOTR - Fellowship - See above

18. City of God - I haven't seen this one.

19. Casablanca - While certainly about a romance, look at how it ends.

20. Once Upon a Time in the West.

It's a birth control metaphor
21. The Matrix - Great example. For a while the storytelling engine is the mystery plot. What is the Matrix? Once we figure that one out, then it's about Neo becoming the One by moving the letters around in his name.
Yes there is a romantic sub-plot, but it's kind of Trinity's plot, not as much Neo's. Contrast this with The Matrix Reloaded where Neo's goal for the entire film is to save Trinity.

22. Rear Window

23. Raiders of the Lost Ark - Again there's a romantic subplot, but it's almost single-mindedly about finding the Ark of the Covenant, that is the storytelling engine.

24. The Usual Suspects - Crime drama plus mystery plot plus twist ending.

25. The Silence of the Lambs - Clarice doesn't even have a romantic interest in the film, which leads people to see her and Lecter has having a romantic connection. I don't think it's romantic (and yeah, I know how the novel Hannibal ends).

26. Psycho

27. Se7en - Spoiler Alert - While this film is about chasing a serial killer, at the end it suddenly becomes an "Avenge Family" plot. I think this one works better because this isn't used as a storytelling engine, hunting the serial killer is the engine, so this ends up only coming up with a few minutes left and so we get an entire film's worth of story-telling engine in just a matter of minutes, which is why I think it's such a powerful ending.

These are some of the greatest films of all time. Now let's look at truly disappointing films. I've just googled "most disappointing films of all time" and culled a list of the most popular entrants. Here goes:

Guys in Skinny Jeans are so dark and mysterious

The Phantom Menace - Ugh, all the prequels are going to make this list, so I'll adress them all at once. The Goal of the whole trilogy is essentially for Anakin to get the girl, then fuck the girl, make the family, then kill the girl, and spend the next trilogy as the villian who redeems himself. The latter part is interesting. The beginning part is the tedious family plot.

Spiderman 3 - Peter Parker is again trying to juggle the girl and the superherodom. That's fine, but then comes the revenge plot when he discovers who realllly killed his uncle in the first film (even though he totally got revenge in the first movie), plus there's Sandman, a villain motivated by trying to save his daughter. Add that all up and you've got a trifecta of all three family plots. That and Peter Parker becomes an emo lounge singer.

Hey, remember when it was Harrison
 Ford and Sean Connery fighting Nazis...
Indiana Jones 4 - The hate for this film has a lot to do with the Aliens and the massive amounts of CGI, vine-swinging, and shit like that. However, if you look closer, it also is based on a family plot. The Indiana Jones trilogy has love interests, but they're little more than side-kicks he occasionally kisses. In 4, the love interest from Indy 1 shows back up along with their son he never knew about. The rest of the film is a family romp through the jungle with his woman and Even Stephen.

Terminator 3 - The goal in Terminator 1 is for Sarah to avoid being killed by a robot from the future (and conceive John Connor) but the storytelling engine is The Chase for sure. T2 is again a chase, with John Connor being the target. The goal here isn't simply to avoid death, but they also try to prevent the post-apocalyptic future from happening, and they succeed...or do they? What's the goal in T3? To avoid death and to prevent the apocalypse...again. Only it turns out that's not the goal, the goal was actually just for John and his woman to hide away so they can make babies and get ready for the future where they will become important. Basically what they've done is rip the 2nd movie's balls off and slapped a pair of baby-making ovaries on it. (No offense to ovaries, they just aren't balls.)

We can't wait to get married!
Wedding Crashers - Finally, a non-sequel. This one had high expectations because of Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell, plus it seemed to be an anti-romcom, where the goal was to use weddings as a way to get lots of one night stands. It sounds like a great subversion to the family plot. Then it turns into nothing but a romantic plot with a few jokes. That's like if you saw previews for a movie about a superhero saving the world and went to the theater and saw an emo guy with powers mope around because his girlfriend had some other dude's kid.

Superman Returns - Oh for fucks sake. Superman returns to Earth to discover Lois Lane has a kid that's not his, but then it turns out later, very obviously, that it IS Superman's kid. Lex Luthor comes along and kidnaps both the girl and the kid. Yay.

Little Fockers - Yeah, this surprisingly made quite a few lists. Meet the Parents is interesting because Ben Stiller HAS the girl. Now he just has to make an impression on her parents and everything goes hilariously wrong. Little Fockers is about Ben Stiller and his wife and kids going through troubles and blood started pouring out of my ears 35 minutes in so I couldn't really tell you what it was about.

Shrek the Third - Haven't seen it, but apparently it's about Shrek becoming a father. Sounds like a whimsical story to me.

The Godfather Part III - Need I say more?

If Jurassic Park has taught me anything, it's that every
character either gets eaten by a dinosaur, or has babies.
Jurassic Park III - Our kid was kidnapped. By DINOSAURS! - Contrast with Jurassic Park which is about Man playing god, and then the chase, and yes, the Main Character spends a good portion of the film trying to keep some snot-rags alive, but they're not even his kids, nor does he have a wife, he has a girlfriend who he doesn't marry we learn in later films. So take that Monogamous-Heterosexual Patriarchy.

To really drive the point home, let's look at few examples of family plots that are original.

Eternal Sunshine
(spoilers of course) Is set inside Jim Carrey's dream as his memories of his ex-gf are being erased. He decides that he doesn't want the memories erased and wants to call it off, but he can't wake up. So he tries to get his mental projection of his ex-gf to safety so he can keep the memories of her and their relationship, flaws and all. It's about appreciating things for what they are. Then there's the ending where they meet and kind of hook-up again, destined probably (certainly if you've read the script [they discover they've erased each other multiple times, not just once]) to relive the same doomed relationship. Now that's an interesting goal.

How about Solaris (2002 version)
(Spoilers) George Clooney is called to a space station around a distant planet because he's a psychiatrist and something's gone wrong with the crew. So at first the story is driven by a mystery. What's happening?

 There's even this: "I could tell you what's happening, but that wouldn't really tell you what's happening." Which is entirely unlike "Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is, they have to see it for themselves." Which is quickly followed up by a verbal explanation of the Matrix. But I digress.

 So Clooney starts to experience what's happening, and the what is that dead loved ones from your memories appear on the space station as living breathing people, just as you remember them. So Clooney's dead wife shows up and is all like, hey George, what's happening? The idea behind this is that Solaris either is or has some sort of Alien life on it and this is how we make first contact, not with humanoid beings with lumpy foreheads or pointy ears, but with beings that defy all of our understanding of what life is. So for the rest of the film Clooney tries to cope with his fake wife. Is she real? What is real? She thinks, therefore she is, right? Do you stay here and live with her? Or go back to Earth and risk taking this phenomenom with us? How do I know I'm real and not a projection too? So again, this takes the relationship plot but makes it about an idea, not physically getting the girl.

Being John Malkovich
The 15 halfths floor. 
What if there was a portal that let you live inside John Malkovich? John Cusack wants Catherine Keener (and who wouldn't?). He can't have her as himself, BUT, if he's Malkovich, rich, famous, tall, older, handsome, then he can have her. Or so he thinks. Then there's the shemale/lesbian thing. Again, the goal might be to get the girl, but it's saying so much more than that. John Cusack (Craig Schwartz) is willing to completely lose all of his identity and become someone else in order to get the girl. At the end he is left a nobody because of it.

The most egregious abuser of the ticking clock and the hostage family is the show 24.

This all happens in season one, AKA 24 hours.

Jack's wife Teri suspects that their teenage daughter Kim is in trouble. They think she was run over by a car and go to the hospital but discover it was one of Kim's friends, and Kim is still missing. Jack suspects that her disappearance is connected with terrorists.

Teri goes searching with a man she thinks is the father of Kim's friend, but he turns out to be a terrorist. Teri smashes him over the head with a rock and escapes to be rescued by CTU agents who actually turn out to be terrorists who recapture her and take her to the compound where they are holding her daughter Kim.

A terrorist is gonna rape Kim, so Teri offers herself up instead. He then rapes her offscreen. The bad guys are about to kill both women, but then they miraculously are saved.

Teri and Kim are now safe and go to a hospital. Teri has abdominal pain and takes a pregnancy test which comes up positive.

Liam Neeson fucks you up for kidnapping his daughter only once.
Jack Bauer's too busy, he's got a three strikes rule for that. 
They go to a safe house but it is attacked and they have to escape via a car chase, which ends with the car rolling over and exploding while Kim is still inside, she survives, suffering from amnesia, but Teri believes her to be dead.

Teri is rescued and lies to Jack, telling him that Kim is okay, when she thinks she's dead. They then learn that Kim is alive, but has been rekidnapped. Jack tells Teri this and then she tells him that she's pregnant.

Jack then rescues Kim and is taking her back to CTU HQ, but en route, Teri, who is back at CTU discovers that one of Jack's colleagues is a double agent. The agent takes her hostage. The agent destroys all evidence of double-agentness then shoots Teri in the stomach and leaves.

Jack comes back to find Teri slumped over in the chair, he verifies that she is dead as the ticking clock closes out the season.

Yes, that all happened in 24 hours.

Oh and the main plot of the season is an assassination plot against a presidential candidate, this was just a sub-plot.

These aren't women so much as they are professional hostages/baby-machines.

They made 7 more seasons of this...

So if you want to avoid cliche, then have your male characters care about something more than just getting/saving/avenging the girl.


  1. Hi there,
    found your artice via Reddit and you point out a very intersting element of story structure and character development / goal setting.
    But, in my opinion there is a paragraph missing asking for the reasons why so many screenwriters use this obvious plot point over and over again.
    In my opinion, family is a primal plot point most viewers can relate to. Let's say the terrorist in 'Taken' steal Liam Neesons favourite coffee, would this warrant a killing spree to get it back? No, most definitely not. But we feel for his pain, because we all can imagine (or had to experience) the loss of a close family member.
    As you point out, even your contrast examples are about getting the girl/remembering the girl/seeing your dead girl - it is the execution that is new and original. But at the moment I can't think about any mainstream movie not having family/love elements driving the plot forwards...

    I will be following your blog and I would be happy if you could follow me back at my Screewriting and Movie Blog.

    Have a nice day,

  2. You're right Tristan, there is a reason so many writers turn to this goal. However, my main critique is really that this goal has been so completely overdone that you really have to do something original with it to make it at all interesting. So if you want to avoid cliche, either find a way to address the family plot from a new angle, or come up with different goals for your main character. Honestly, I would rather watch Taken if it was about stolen coffee, that sounds way more interesting to me than another female macguffin.