Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Jack Lord Rule

By Steven Pressfield | Published: November 12, 2014

Remember Jack Lord? He played Steve McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O.

Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett on "Hawaii Five-O."

Jack Lord had a rule for himself as a character. The rule was: “I don’t ask questions. I answer them.”

I learned this from my friend Ernie Pintoff, who directed a gaggle of Hawaii Five-Os back in the day. According to Ernie, every time a script called for Jack Lord’s character to ask a question, Jack would stop the scene and refuse to read the line.

“I don’t ask questions,” he would say. “I answer them.”

When I first heard this, I thought, “What an insufferable egomaniac! People ask questions in real life. Particularly detectives, which is the role Jack Lord is playing. What’s his problem? Ask the freakin’ question!”

But Jack Lord was right.

What he understood (and I didn’t) was that he wasn’t playing a real person, he was playing a hero—and heroes are different from you and me.

This is a critical lesson for any young writer. We want our characters to be “real.” We want our heroes to be “relatable.” But characters are not real and heroes are not normal. They can’t be. If they were, they wouldn’t be heroes.

The hero drives the story. That’s his job. He (or she) is the one whose choices and actions turn the narrative and propel it forward toward the climax.

In Shawn’s new book The Story Grid, coming this Spring, he cites Robert McKee’s principle that the protagonist of any novel or movie must be physically and emotionally capable of pursuing his or her object of desire “to the end of the line.” What McKee means is that the hero cannot stop short of the ultimate act that the story requires. If he does, the reader or moviegoer feels cheated, even outraged. Luke Skywalker must attack the Death Star while trusting the Force; Captain Ahab has to go down lashed to Moby Dick; Clarice Starling must enter Buffalo Bill’s lair alone and in total darkness.

You or I, in real life, might not be so heroic. We might get off the train one or two stops before the end of the line. That’s why we’re not heroes. Heroes go all the way.

It is not a crime for us as writers to craft a hero who is smarter, tougher, and ballsier than we are. In fact we have to. The story, any story, demands it.

But back to the Jack Lord Rule.

Certainly a hero in a novel or a movie is permitted to ask a question. Jake Gittes did. Sam Spade. Dirty Harry. We don’t want to take Jack Lord’s Rule too literally. But when the hero asks a question, he makes sure it’s a question that drives the story forward—and it’s a question that nobody but the hero could have asked.

Heroes, by the way, do not have to be granite-jawed leading men like Jack Lord. Think of Duncan (Liam James), the ultra-dorky 14-year-old protagonist of The Way, Way Back. Heroes don’t come any nerdier than Duncan or more cowed by life. But before we judge him too hastily, let’s watch Duncan in action through the lens of the Jack Lord Rule.

Sam Rockwell and Liam James in "The Way, Way Back."

True, Duncan starts off taking brutal psychological abuse from his mom’s boyfriend Trent (a very nasty Steve Carell). But in the end Duncan stands up to this tormentor. He confronts his mother Pam (Toni Collette) in a fiery scene at a nighttime barbecue. Duncan summons the guts to bolt from his family. He finds a job on his own (at the Water Wizz water park). He makes new friends; he finds an honorable mentor (Sam Rockwell). He creates a secret life for himself. He acquires a new and much cooler identity (“Pop n’ Lock”). Duncan even holds his ground with a sympathetic Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl he has a crush on, refusing to be untrue to himself.

Supernerd Duncan drives the action.

He is a hero.

He’s Jack Lord.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

14 Responses to “The Jack Lord Rule”

  1. Trey
    November 12, 2014 at 6:12 am

    Very interesting point about the hero being cut of a different cloth…figure versus ground. This point is consistent with what is going on in the Blacklist tv show where Reddington nevers answers a question, he only asks them.

  2. November 12, 2014 at 6:22 am

    “Certainly a hero in a novel or a movie is permitted to ask a question. Jake Gittes did. Sam Spade. Dirty Harry. We don’t want to take Jack Lord’s Rule too literally. But when the hero asks a question, he makes sure it’s a question that drives the story forward—and it’s a question that nobody but the hero could have asked.”

    Being a Columbo fan, the opening of this post had my teath on edge, right up until that paragraph. And then it sunk in: “A question that drives the story forward… that nobody buy the hero could have asked” — practically defines Peter Falk’s character.

    And then everything about The Way, Way Back really drove it home. Haven’t seen that movie, but I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Still… I’ll talk Peter Falk over Jack Lord any day of the week and twice on Sunday ; )

    • Mary Doyle
      November 12, 2014 at 6:34 am

      Thanks for the Peter Falk reference Jeff – that helped me to get my head around this – I’d also add, the hero shouldn’t be afraid of looking (or sounding) stupid when asking the right questions. There is bravery in the act of asking, and that drives the story forward too.

      • November 12, 2014 at 8:08 am

        Watch Bogie in The Maltese Falcon. A constantly repeated scene: Bogie leans into someone much bigger than him, finger in their chest, telling them what’s going on. Not asking “Is this what’s going on?”

        I like both kinds of heroes, those like Columbo who use sleight of hand (and brain) to misdirect their prey as they close for the kill, and those like Jack Lord or Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe who walk up to trouble, slap it once to be sure it’s listening, and lay down the law.

        • November 12, 2014 at 8:09 am

          Erg. Apologies for the errant boldness. Font, I mean, not attitude.

  3. Andrine
    November 12, 2014 at 6:31 am

    Great insight into character development – one I had never realized. Why a “hero” was relatable and admired by the reader or viewer. Thanks for this blog post!

  4. November 12, 2014 at 7:13 am

    I found this so moving. It caused me to think of what my own place in life is, to be the hero of my own story. I started painting again. I had set my palette aside because I felt broken. I continued to sculpt because it was an instinct but sporadically at best.

    I keep copies of “The War of Art” in my purse and by my computer, but have not followed through with what I know is the the answer to my question, “Will I be OK?” The answer is yes of course, the answer is in every effort I make to meet the goal of reveling a new part of the story, one that progresses the story.

    Maybe that is what life has to say? Does this stumbling block progress the story? Does it deserve the attention given? It is truly worth a whole chapter or even a book? Or maybe, after defining its true character, it is a lesson the deserves another title. Maybe that is the answer to my personal question.

    • Nan Roberts
      November 20, 2014 at 11:11 am

      Thank you, Kathy. Going through similar struggles. “Who am I” is right on top.

  5. Barbara Allie
    November 12, 2014 at 8:56 am

    I listed your Wednesday Blog as one of myy gratitude items today. You plunked just the right cord to move me forward today. Thank you!

  6. November 12, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Much food for thought, as always. Thanks, Steve

  7. November 12, 2014 at 9:45 am

    Here’s to “all the way.”
    (Now stuck on replay: “When somebody loves you it’s no good unless they love you…”)

  8. Sonja
    November 13, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I actually saw that movie with Duncan as the nerd hero. And now it makes sense, as obvious as it always was….Thanks for re-clarifying some things I know about the hero in my story, but never articulated out loud….

  9. November 16, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    Yes, thanks for the post. The best hero’s I find are heroic to themselves and are somehow aware of the chamber they exist in which is dictated by time and chance. They drive the action as well as respond to it.

  10. Nan Roberts
    November 20, 2014 at 11:15 am

    Could somebody please tell me what happened in Hawaii 5-0 when Jack Lord said that? I mean, how was that resolved in that program? I know I’m being literal here, but I didn’t watch the program, so I don’t know how it worked.

    I get all the examples, and how questions drive the story forward.