True Liabilities

by Melanie Anne Phillips

Jack of all trades, master of none. Sometimes a story just tries to do too much. Often when creating a work, an author will be inspired by a bit of action, a particular character or an interesting theme. Unfortunately, these may not all belong in the same story. A good solution is to choose which of these opposing creative directions one wishes to follow and put the others in cold storage for later. Another approach is to fully develop each of the incompatible concepts as a separate story within the work so that each is internally complete and externally consistent with the others. A regrettable approach is to try and make one story out of the beginnings of several. Rather than having each inspired concept add to the overall impact of the work, they detract from the gestalt, appearing not as creative assets but True Liabilities.

In the attempt to meld too many incompatible creative inspirations into a single story, True Lies ends up fragmented, schizophrenic, and unfocused. Worst of all, because each piece had such potential to develop into a complete story of its own, seeing them incomplete and stunted leaves the audience unfulfilled and frustrated. If we can identify the fragments and conjecture as to how they might have been developed independently, we can apply these techniques in making our own works more consistent.

True Lies embodies three potentially unconnected stories about three characters; Harry, an undercover spy; Helen, his unsuspecting wife; and Dana, their neglected daughter. Story number one involves Harry, who suspects his wife of having an affair and seeks to discover if she still loves him. After eavesdropping on her conversation, Harry is shaken and tells his partner, Gil of his suspicions.


Helen... Helen... is... having an affair.


Hey, Harry. Listen, Helen still loves you, you know.
She just wants to bang this guy for a while. It's nothing serious... you'll get used to it.

Story number two is about a housewife who discovers that her husband has been lying to her for seventeen years, loses her trust in him, and must decide if she will trust him again. Harry and Helen are kidnapped by the terrorists and Harry is forced to tell the truth about his secret life, and face the consequences with Helen.


What can I say? I am a spy.


You bastard! Lying, son of a bitch!


Sorry, honey...


Oh, don't you call me honey! You don't ever
get to call me honey, again. You understand me? You pig!!

Story number three is about a man who doesn't pay enough attention to his daughter, so she comes to believe that she is unimportant to him and the man must try to prove to his daughter that he truly cares. Returning from a mission, Harry is insensitive to the fact that he should have bought something to bring home to his daughter. Luckily, his partner Gil remembered and saves the day.


I've got a... souvenir Swiss Snowy Village.


What's that for?


For Dana, stup! You know, bring your kid
home a gift. You know...the dad thing.


Right, got it... nice touch.

Notice that the first and third stories focus on the man as the main character, while in story number two the main character is the wife. This is the first problem created by the multiple stories in True Lies: there is no consistent main character, yet the filmmakers forced it to have one. In other words, the story dealing with the wife's lost trust in her husband should have been told from her perspective to be consistent with the dramatic potentials of that story. However, the filmmakers chose to tell the story from her husband's point of view and thereby placed the audience in the uncomfortable position of wanting to see the story from her side, yet forced to look at her (themselves) from the outside. This pulls the audience right out of the passionate argument and robs that story of its heart.

It is this misplaced perspective that makes Harry seem to be a voyeur in the stripping scene and steals the meaning of their time together on the island, right up to his final rescue of her from the runaway limo on the bridge. In spite of this weakness in perspective, there must be some consistency that strings the three stories together or the film would not have worked at all. This consistency is the Objective Story. Every story has an Objective (or plot-oriented) side and a Subjective (or character-oriented) side. The three stories mentioned above are all Subjective in nature. The consistency in True Lies is the Objective story about the terrorist threat, which spans all three. So, even though the entire middle of the film is told through the wrong character's eyes, the Objective story of terrorism strings them all together. How could this disjointed subjective side of True Lies have been fixed? There are two easy options: turn two of the partially developed subjective stories into subplots of the primary subjective story or lose the two least powerful stories altogether. Let's explore each option.

Losing two of the stories is certainly the easiest (though it may not be acceptable to filmmakers who insist on incorporating every good idea they have, whether it belongs in a film or not). If we take a look at where each of the three stories begins and where each segues into the next, we can perform a hypothetical amputation and see if the patient is healthier for it.

The opening teaser is just that: a teaser. All of Harry's shenanigans boil down to backstory exposition that he is a successful, dashing spy. Other than that, there is not a single bit of information that isn't brought out later, including the relationships among the members of Harry's team. It is important to recognize the difference between a dramatic storyform and dramatic storytelling. The chase scene at the end of the teaser is exciting and well-told, but it doesn't add to our understanding of the characters or their personal problems, and also offers precious little to our knowledge of the terrorist plot.

Liability #1

After the teaser, Harry goes home to his family and a "normal" life. Here we get our first glimpse of the beginning of the third story about the neglected daughter, Dana. But this story is so thin as to be almost not there. Dana dumps her father's proxy gift in the wastebasket and takes some cash from his partner's jacket. Aside from stirring a cake, she is barely involved in the movie until the Harrier sequence. Her story concludes with a visually stunning Harrier rescue, yet how can we care about her when we hardly know her? Still, at least the point is made that Harry doesn't know his daughter any better than we do.


You know, it's not just because you're a bad parent, I mean, kids, today, are ten years ahead of where we were at the same age. Hey, you think she's still a virgin?


Don't be ridiculous, she's only... What is she now?


She's 14 Harry!


She's only 14 years old.

Harry's partner, Gill, seems to know much much more about Harry's daughter. We see no more than a superficial exploration of the relationship between Harry and Dana. The daughter as an essential character to the story's solution or resolution seems quite invalid. We could easily dispose of her, and never miss her. Since we are first talking about cutting out two of the stories and later exploring ways to integrate them, let's just have the happy couple be childless and lop off the harrier sequence at the end.

What?!? Lose all that wonderful Harrier CGI?!? Yep. Car crashes and high-tech planes are a dime a dozen as action fodder. If you don't care about the people involved, you might as well go to the demolition derby. But how would we eliminate the villain if not by Harrier? How about by helicopter? Instead of landing for the Big Nuke, Harry could have just stayed on the copter, caught up to the villain and blown him out of the sky. THEN he lands and kisses his wife while the bomb goes off in the background.

Of course, rescuing the daughter was supposed to resolve her belief that her father didn't care about her. But did it really do that? The only clue we have is that just before Harry and Helen (his wife) are called out on assignment from their dinner table, Dana is sitting there all clean cut. Somehow shifting from grunge to debutante "one year later" is to serve as author's proof that she now understands that her father cares for her.

But what about Harry and the Harrier as he calls up to his daughter, "Trust me."? What about it? The issue was never whether Dana trusted him. That was Helen's issue. Dana just didn't think he cared. We don't get that from his showing up in a plane like Captain America and telling her to trust him. Presumably, the shock of seeing your computer salesman dad in a Harrier might just overshadow that event as single-handedly proving that he cares. So, we lose Dana's story and along with it, unfortunately, some exceptional CGI.

Liability #2

Now we have the "man who thinks his wife is cheating" story to dispose of. This story is developed better than the daughter's. Here, at least, we have some real emotion. Harry loves Helen, but does Helen still love Harry? From the look of things, no. He eavesdrops on a single conversation she has on the phone and is immediately convinced she is having an affair.


Helen, it's Simon. Is it safe to talk?




Listen, I can't talk long... Can you meet me for lunch
tomorrow? I must to see you.


I suppose so. Where?


Same place. 1:00 o'clock. I have to go now. See you tomorrow. Remember, I need you

Well, the overtones there were rather good, so we buy his conviction. He investigates, puts her in situations that force her to lie, and ultimately frightens and browbeats her in a high-tech sweat session. This story starts VERY well . . . and it develops well . . . and then it doesn't end when it should. In the interrogation scene, Harry comes to realize Helen is telling the truth about not having or even intending to have an affair. He almost becomes a human character when he starts to feel saddened and guilty for his lack of trust in her when he has been lying to her all these years. Helen admits that she has been tempted toward the excitement of the moment, but never to have an affair.


I needed to feel alive. I just wanted to do something outrageous, and it felt really good to be needed, and to be trusted, and to be special. It's just that there is so much I wanted to do with this life, and it's like I haven't done any of it,and the sand's running out of the sand glass, and I just wanted to be able to look back and say: "See, I did that. I was reckless and wild and I fucking did it." Quite frankly, I don't give a shit if you understand that or not!

She beats on the window and Harry is shamed. Still he puts the question to her:


Do you love your husband?


Yes, I love him. I've always loved him, and I will always love him.

That's when he should have come out of the control room, embraced her and begged her forgiveness. She is angry, she is hurt, but he is genuinely repentant. Does she love him even after this or has he lost her forever with his lack of trust? Dissolve to "one year later" at the party scene and we see the two of them tangoing together. She has forgiven him, he has learned his lesson, and she gets her excitement. Happy ending, the party bookends the story.

In True Lies the story doesn't end there. Harry doesn't reveal himself. Rather than asking her forgiveness for all he has already done to her, he inflicts further emotional stress by making Helen believe her family is in danger.


(to Gil)

She wants a little adventure, so I'm going to give her one.

(to Helen)

I'm offering you a choice. If you work for us, we will drop the charges and you can go back to your normal life, if not, you will go to federal prison, and your husband and daughter will be left waiting and alone. Your life will be destroyed.

More lies. Nothing learned. Then, he manipulates her, and humiliates her while he watches like a lecher. Not an admirable character. Oh, sure, she beats him on the head before she knows who he is. Wouldn't it have been better under the circumstances if she beat the tar out of him after she recognized him? But all this is swept under the carpet by the Objective story when the terrorists kidnap them both from the room. That's no way to resolve a Subjective problem!

Which brings up the question of where that particular problem DOES resolve. In fact, it never does. There is never a scene in which Helen forgives Harry or in which he asks forgiveness. They just sort of come out of it like two people who have been married a long time, have a spat, and it just blows over. But you sure don't find romance in a party scene stemming from a relationship like that! We needed to see this one resolve. Since we didn't and since the Objective story wanted to focus more on the terrorists, let's axe this story as well.

What does that leave us with? An opening scene in which a spy does spy things. Harry comes home to his "normal" family who don't know. He is "marked" by the villain. Terrorists break into his house, take him and his wife hostage. Helen is shocked to find that Harry has been lying to her and doesn't want anything to do with him. She won't trust anything he says. On the island, he is given truth serum. She learns that he really does love her. When it wears off, he starts grandstanding to win her back. He tells a few white lies to make himself look better in her eyes and gets caught in the fibs. Now she REALLY doesn't trust him. She won't believe anything he says, which puts a big crimp in his ability to get them safely off the island and stop the terrorists.

Helen ends up in the runaway limo on the bridge. Harry catches up by helicopter. He yells to her that the bridge is out, but she can't see it behind the fire and believes he is still grandstanding to win her back. No matter what he says, she doesn't believe him and time is running out. Finally, Harry tells her that if he is lying now, then she must believe he never loved her. She makes a leap of faith, hoping that his love is enough to make him truthful. In fact, it is a literal leap of faith, as she takes his grip just in time to be pulled from the limo before in crashes off the collapsed bridge. Author's proof, she made the right choice. They land, they kiss, (bomb goes off), the end, no party scene.

But we cut out so much! True, but the film would have felt so much better! Still, its a shame to lose so many good storytelling concepts. If we could find a way to complete each story internally and then bring them all together in a single film, we might be able to have our cake and eat it too. How might we complete, then combine them to cater to their strengths and compensate for their weaknesses?

Turning Liabilities into Assets

Let's open with the party scene. Just for kicks, lets see something at the party or the computer room that hints at the nuclear connection. Harry goes home to his "normal" family life. We learn that his daughter believes he doesn't care "because you're never there." Dana has to say this at least once. We need a scene with her, not just a moment when she gets the gift. She goes off with the boyfriend and Harry sees and HEARS her with the hidden camera as her boyfriend tells her, "You sure your dad won't mind you going?" Dana replies, "He doesn't care about anything I do. Sometimes I feel like I don't even have a dad." Well, maybe the dialog is clunky, but you get the idea: we set it up that Harry is never there for her when she needs him.

Now, the "affair" proceeds as it was filmed. But when we come to the interrogation scene, Jamie makes more of a point about how her life is so boring. (We could foreshadow and support this in the office scene earlier when she got the call from the used car salesman). Harry breaks down, feeling shamed. His buddy tells him to go in and ask her forgiveness. He says he can't because she'll never trust him again. He believes he'll lose her. Harry still can't tell the truth. Instead, he decides to lie even more in an attempt to win her back.


What are you doing Harry??


Just giving her a little assignment.


You got to be shittin' me!?!

Harry decides to set it all up, trying to give her what she fantasizes about and winning her back in the process. (Sure, its self-serving to the male audience, but that's the intended audience, after all.) But when Helen goes up to the room, humiliates herself and finds out it is Harry, she lambastes him with the phone. Before the issue between them can be resolved, the terrorists show up and take them away.

Harry and Helen end up on the island as described above where she is sure he loves her but still he lies to win her back. Her lack of trust hinders his ability to get them safely off the island. Helen ends up in the limo, makes the leap of faith (after all, for the intended audience the woman has to be the one to change), they land, kiss, nuclear bomb, and then they get the word that Dana has been taken.

We cut to the terrorists holding Dana. We need the villain to tell her she is bait to lure her father. She tells him that her dad won't come: he doesn't care about her at all. Again, she HAS to say this at least once. NOW, we have all the elements in place for her to be surprised not only by her daddy in a Harrier, but that it is HER DADDY. Harry's line is not "trust me", but "I love you." And that is when Dana jumps because she knows her daddy will catch her.

One year later, the happy family, the phone call, the party bookend, and just before the tango, Harry picks up something for his daughter as a souvenir. He says, "This is for Dana, she loves unicorns," letting us know that he has come to care enough about his daughter to know her special likes. Then the tango, roll credits, happy ending.

The interesting thing about this minor rewrite is that it would have added nothing to the budget. All that was required was a minute or two of new film in existing locations with existing cast and a few additional lines of dialog. Yet, with that little effort, rather than being true liabilities, the "three unsuccessful stories" could have gotten this film's storyforming assets in gear. And that's no lie.

NOTE: This article first appeared in Vol.1 No. 2 of the "Dramatica Storyforming" newsletter.

About the Author

Melanie Anne Phillips is the co-creator of the Dramatica theory of story. Later, as Director of Research and Development for Write Brothers, she collaborated in the design and development of the Dramatica line of software and accessories. Today, Ms. Phillips develops writing tools for her own company, Storymind and provides writing tips on Twitter @WritingTip and on her story structure blog, Dramaticapedia.

Prev Articles Home Next

Dramatica Story Expert

the next chapter in story development

Buy Now