Notice this line near the end of the first verse: "I was still tryin' to find my way back whole."
Bruce is practically giving us a tutorial in how story works in relationship to character. No character begins "whole." The events in the story should be orchestrated in such a way that he or she will have the opportunity to become, or return to being, a whole person. In Killer Endings
, I discuss how character arc, theme, and dilemma are all linked. The movie or story is going to give your character a choice -- the hardest choice imaginable given the character and context -- and if he makes the right choice, he will be transformed. Or the choice itself will be evidence of his transformation. The theme comes out of the story showing us what happens as a result of this transformation.
Back to the song. Look at the specificity of these two lines from the first verse: "I got my discharge from Fort Irwin"
and "My wife had died a year ago"
He left the service and he lost his wife. We quickly realize that there are two big competing ideas in this story and in this character. He is missing love and he is missing a sense of duty. A student in one of my classes asked if the discharge was a "dishonorable" one. I don't know, but if so, I might even change the idea of duty to the idea of honor. Both ideas fit and honor is actually a narrow sort of duty. The protagonist finds a job that should at least, for now, fulfill his need for duty.
In a five-minute story, you can't waste an idea, character or subplot, so notice the crisp orchestration of the characters. His partner Bobby is a Mexican American who has to drink alongside "the same people (he) sent back the day before." Bruce immediately sums up the dilemma for him: "His family was from Guanajuato
so the job it was different for him"
Yeah, it's different. But notice how it's also the same. A subplot character and his dilemma will echo, mirror or contradict the protagonist's dilemma. Bobby's efficient ten-second intro sets him up as a guy torn between love and duty - the love of his people, and his duty to guard the line. (What a great title, btw!) It's a wonderful and wonderfully succinct dilemma.
Back to the main character: "Well I was good at doin' what I was told
kept my uniform pressed and clean"
Carl is holding on tightly to the duty and rigid sense of order that his new job brings. Is it going to be enough? I sure hope not. If it is, the movie is over now, right? And we can change the title from The Line to the The Zone
. The Comfort Zone
. Stories are supposed to push characters out of their comfort zone. So something big needs to come along and shake things up.
But what? How do we choose the right something? Is there a place to look to help us choose the right one? Yes and yes. First, we must think about the age-old rhetorical chicken-egg question about structure and character. Which comes first? Which is more important?
When addressing this question in my classes, I often refer to the Joseph Campbell interview with Bill Moyers in The Power of Myth
series. Moyers asked him whether a story might bring a challenge that is too big for the hero, and Campbell gave a great answer. He talked about how the world and events of a story will rise up to challenge the character in the exact way he is ready to be challenged. In short, Campbell is saying phooey
(and wouldn't it be awesome to see him say that for real?) to our rhetorical question. Character and structure are the same.
Our protagonist is a guy who has been set up as missing love and a sense of duty. He is on track with the duty, so if something is going to throw him off that track, is it going to be money? No. That has nothing to do with this story. That would be a nonsequitur. The thing that will rise up from the story will be what he is ready for, what he is vulnerable to, what can get him in the most trouble. The thing that matters.
He has his duty. The movie must now bring him love.
He meets a Mexican woman (another thematic permutation of crossing lines) who is in the holding pen. Their meeting feels very much like the beginning of a cinematic romance: "Our eyes met and she looked away
then she looked back again"
Just to be clear about what this means and how it ties into the deeper need and backstory of the protagonist, Bruce spells it out for us in the next line:"Her hair was black as coal
her eyes reminded me of what I'd lost"
He later meets the woman, Louisa, in a Tijuana bar "where me and Bobby drink alongside the same people we'd sent back the day before." He dances with her. In a short story like this, even if we don't believe that this is love at first sight, it can still work as hope for the real thing. Louisa tells him that she has a brother who needs to get across the line. Notice how she is an apparent foil for Bobby. She puts love of family (literally for her, figuratively for him) before law and a sense of duty. This gives Carl his first dilemma, and it's exactly on point: he has to choose between his duty and his love for her.
He makes the choice to help her and picks them up in his truck. Their kiss is immediately followed by "as we drove, her brother's shirt slipped open and I saw the tape across his chest." (I assume the tape is a package of drugs but others have suggested that it's an old-school tape recorder. The possible feature adaptation - a sting operation by Bobby because Carl fell in love with his wife?) One way or another, she has betrayed him. Remember that idea of linking duty and honor? This is a form of anti-duty: dishonor.
Look at the dilemma that this creates. Bobby catches Carl. Louisa and her brother run off into the night. It's now a standoff between Bobby and Carl. (Bruce loves movies and writes cinematically: "I pulled over and let my engine run and stepped out into his lights...") This is the crisis moment for Bobby. Do you feel it? He is at the precipice of his
biggest choice in the story. Notice his dilemma is again between a love (friendship) and duty (the law).
There isn't one word of explanation. This is how it should work in this climax and in the
climax of this or any other story. By the time you get here, you just want the uninflected action. Bruce cuts right to it: "Bobby Ramirez, he never said nothing." He chooses friendship over his duty as a Border Patrol officer.
Now the song leaves the main character with a huge decision to make - his ultimate dilemma - the climax of the story. What is he going to do? Once again, not a word of explanation, just the choice in the same breath as Bobby's decision to let him off the hook: "Six months later I left the line."
The meaning of this choice is ambiguous so let's hold off until the end to discuss it. All that's left now is the resolution, which is the last step in honing the theme. You allow your character to make the final choice and you avoid having a gabfest to explain it. Then, you use the resolution to tie things up and clarify your intention. (For 90 minutes more on this, check out my DVD, The T-Word: Theme.)
Notice that the efficient resolution ties up two and only two loose ends - the only two issues relevant to this story and character - duty and love: Duty: "Drifted the central valley, took what work I could find"
Love: "Searched the local bars and migrant towns looking for my Louisa"
I have taken a dozen polls from students in classes regarding this ending. I ask the following questions. Does the character have duty but not love, love but not duty, both or neither? Usually, I will get at least one yes to each of these questions. It's a five-minute story so I don't mind if it's open-ended and slightly ambiguous, but you can see the ideas it circles: "Love is more important than duty," or "Duty is not enough," or "You can't have one without the other."
Because the character's work seems to be less important than the search for her, I tend to see the ending as leaning toward the romantic/love side, a sort of a negation of the negation - it looks like he abandoned his friendship with Bobby, but in a way he honored it by not letting him cover up for him any longer. He chose an internalized sense of duty that made him responsible for his own actions. Instead of seeing the drifting as an unfocused abandoning of responsibility of duty, I see it as a bigger sense of duty to himself: he discovered the more important thing he needed in life.
Even if your interpretation is different, the important thing to remember is that you have to look for the meaning in the main character's dilemma and how it is expanded upon and clarified by the rhyming dilemmas of the other characters, as well as by what happens in the resolution. If you want to write a masterpiece whose power is in its ambiguity, note that your "ambiguity" still has to sit in the web that is created by the very specific ideas that are floating around in the script. You want your audience to be able to see the 3, 4 or 5 possible meanings. There has to be a context. Without a context and a limitation of possible meanings, the audience will just scratch its head and say, "huh?"
These ideas are integrated into the DNA of the story in this song, into the setup of the characters, their orchestration, the rhyming dilemmas, foil characters, echoing subplots, as well as every imaginable permutation of love versus duty. The craft is what allows this short story to be so powerful and to provide a cohesive emotional journey. I have seen 120-page scripts that never get to the core of the characters, their dilemmas and their interrelationships. In five minutes, Bruce explored about a dozen different permutations of love versus duty. Talk about thematic unity: A guy has lost job in service and his wife, and thereby lost his love and his duty.
He takes a job on the line - duty.
He meets a Mexican American guy who guards border. The character is torn between love of his own people and duty of his job. They become friends - love.
He meets girl and falls in love - more love until she asks him to break his duty, supposedly for the love of her brother.
He chooses to help her and gets caught. Bobby has to decide between love (friendship) and duty. He chooses love.
Although Bobby lets him off the hook by choosing love (friendship), Carl either chooses an internal sense of duty and leaves on his own volition (or possibly abandons the friendship (love) out of shame), becoming a drifter looking for love. Or maybe he lost both love and duty.
The Line is simple, to the point, and heart-wrenchingly effective, all in five minutes. There are plenty of 100-page spec scripts that don't do half of what this one-page story does. I hope by illuminating the story craft elements like dilemma, theme, character arc, resolution, foil characters and character orchestration in this medium, it will make it easier for you to incorporate them in to your own screenplay.
And if you need any help...