By Steven Pressfield | Published: January 23, 2013
We were talking last week about stakes and jeopardy. It is critical in any story, I was saying, that the stakes for all characters be as high as possible—preferably life and death. There’s a further aspect to stakes/jeopardy that might be worth exploring this week.
The stakes in a story should always be on-theme.
Lemme digress for a minute. As I’m writing this, I’m wondering, “Is this subject of interest?” It is to me, but I’m wondering if getting into such nuts-and-bolts detail about storytelling is only tedious to readers who log onto this blog.
Am I boring you with this stuff?
Please let me know in the Comments section. I’ll stop if this is a drag.
Where were we?
Oh yeah … the stakes being “on-theme.”
What do I mean by that?
One way to raise the stakes in a movie or book is to increase the jeopardy to the characters. If a serial killer suddenly appears and starts whacking people’s heads off, that will up the ante nicely. But such escalation can also destroy the story’s integrity. We can’t start throwing around dead bodies just to add drama.
There has to be a purpose to this carnage (or to whatever other means we employ to raise the stakes), and that purpose has to fit in with what the story’s about.
Robert Towne’s Chinatown is about secrecy. It’s about things seeming to be one thing on the surface—and turning out to be completely different underneath. Chinatown is about duplicity and deception.
Therefore the stakes and jeopardy must be about secrets. Their drama must be played out on a landscape of deception.
What the characters must fear most is being exposed.
Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) fears that her incest with her father (John Huston) will be discovered. Those are the stakes for her. She is terrified that the product of that incest, her sweet young daughter Katherine, will fall prey to this same monster, her father.
The genius of Chinatown—hats off to Robert Towne—is that the story takes a pulp genre, the Private Eye Story, and elevates it to the level of literature by employing it in the service of great drama. The drama in Chinatown plays out on two levels, macro and micro. In both the stakes are about secrecy.
On the macro level is the true, historical story of how L.A.’s earliest civic barons brought Owens Valley water to the thirsty, infant burg of Los Angeles—and in the process made the city and themselves rich. These devious doings are the political secret, the criminal secret, the founding-of-an-empire secret that is being kept by John Huston.
Then there’s the micro-secret, also being kept by this villain: that he has slept with his daughter Faye Dunaway years past, produced a daughter by her, and now wants that granddaughter for the same unspeakable purpose.
John Huston will do anything to keep those secrets.
Faye Dunaway’s further secret is that, to keep her daughter safe, she has passed her off for years as her sister. She will do anything to keep that secret and thus protect Katherine. This covert truth is finally extracted from her by Jack Nicholson, in this immortal exchange, amid face slaps and anguished tears:
Who is she?
She’s my sister!
I said who is she?
She’s my daughter!
Tell me the truth!
She’s my sister! She’s my daughter! She’s my sister and my daughter!
The stakes are exposure. The theme is secrets. When the two work together like this, the result is dramatic dynamite.
Chinatown was directed by Roman Polanski, who as a small boy survived the Nazi invasion and occupation of his native Poland much like the hero of his 2002 film, The Pianist. For Polanski, a story of such hidden evil could believably end on no note but the darkest.
At night on Alameda Street Faye Dunaway, trying to flee with her daughter, is shot and killed—in error, by police who have no clue to what’s really happening. The villain succeeds in keeping his secret. John Huston gets his granddaughter and spirits her away, while Jack Nicholson, who knows the truth and has tried his best to help Faye Dunaway, can do nothing but watch helplessly.
This is no happy ending. The evil secret remains unexposed. But what makes the story work so powerfully as tragedy is that the stakes remain on-theme.
In the movie, Jake’s backstory is that before he became a private investigator he had been a police officer in Chinatown, where the language was foreign, the culture alien, and a round-eyed Anglo cop could never really know “what lies beneath.” In this Chinatown past, Jake had tried to help a woman he loved (the movie tells us no more than this) but had instead wound up hurting her—because of, again, secrets and deception, and his failure to understand the hidden, underlying truth. Now, in the movie’s climax, Jake does know the secret. But it makes no difference. Evil triumphs anyway.
In the movie’s final beat, Jake’s associate Walsh puts his arm around the shattered detective and delivers another (thank you, Robert Towne) all-time classic:
Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.
Keep the stakes on-theme. It works.