Zen and the art of exorcising bad story analysis.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”   – Ernest Hemingway

Scene From 'The Exorcist'

Some writers need this guy on their side.

In a prior article, Cracking A Beautiful Mind’s schizophrenic inciting incident, the distinction between goal and methodology to achieve it was briefly touched upon and how oftentimes one is confused with the other.  Misidentifying the story’s goal – either too broad or too narrow, if not completely – can skewer one’s interpretation of the story as a whole, something that would result in my 10th grade English teacher’s reaction: slamming a book onto the desk to emphasize each word, “No.  NO.  NO!  NOOOO!”  If only the rest of the world had the same English teacher…but I digress.

To borrow an analogy from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – if you want your story to run on all cylinders and perform smoothly, you can’t be a romanticist who’s merely enamored with what’s on the surface and relies on others to perform maintenance when it’s not working properly.  You have to be part classicist and immerse yourself in its underpinnings, its structure and how each piece contributes to the whole – and just like Phaedrus, the narrator in Robert Pirsig’s aforementioned book, you’ll become better adept at diagnosing, and resolving, problems with regards to your own story.  But you’re not going to get there unless, like Phaedrus, you take the time to metaphorically tear the engine apart and rebuild it – or in this case, stories.

A couple of years ago, a discussion with a fellow writer regarding The Exorcist ensued on a popular screenwriting blog.  While we agreed that the main character in the story was Father Karras, the other writer believed the character wasn’t very well executed and that  he was rather inactive towards pursing the story’s goal for most of film.  The goal, as they believed it to be, was to perform an exorcism on Regan.  The problem with this analysis – and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it for this particular story – is that it negates the entire journey for Father Karras’s character which connects his personal problem with the story’s resolution, giving us what William Peter Blatty admitted the story’s “secret message” to be about: faith.


I’m outta here. This girl, she needs an exorcism – not a priest who’s lost faith. Oh wait a minute, I better go back because a priest rediscovering his faith through the existence of evil is what the story is REALLY about.

It’s one thing to look at a film with a posteriori knowledge, knowing what happens and that an exorcism is required as the solution – it is, after all, called “The Exorcist,” even though it does not actually accomplish the goal.   We need to keep in mind the solution is not readily apparent to the characters in the story, otherwise an exorcist would have been called in early on and saved us from the experiencing the journey toward understanding the problem – particularly through the eyes of the main character, a priest, who himself has lost faith and has become reliant and psychology as a means to resolve problems. In simple terms, we cannot merely say the goal is the solution.  The solution is the act that’s taken to accomplish the goal.

In The Exorcist, the goal is not to perform an exorcism because the characters themselves don’t know what’s wrong with Regan.  As the Dramatica Theory of Story notes, much of a story is dedicated to characters dealing with a particular problem’s symptoms before they can ever address the problem itself.  Much like Phaedrus riding a sputtering motorcycle, a certain level of diagnostics is required – sometimes testing hypothesis to assess and try to ascertain what the true problem is.  What are all the things that might cause an engine to sputter?   This is why in the health care profession, doctors are said to be “practicing” medicine, for they don’t know how to treat an ailment until they know what the underlying problem is for sure – and as we all know, problems often share numerous symptoms but require vastly different treatments.

Likewise, we cannot say the story goal is to find out what’s wrong with Regan, for that’s merely half the battle.  The goal therefore needs to be somewhat specific – yet be the basis for the journey and actions taken pursuant to accomplishing it.  The trick is it needs to be such that it encompasses the main character’s flaw/personal problem in a way that ties their journey thematically to the actions required (plot) to satisfy the story goal.  In this case, “saving Regan” requires not an exorcism at all, but a literal leap of faith on Father Karras’s behalf after being possessed himself  (It should be noted that not all stories end successfully.  Those that result in failure often do so with the intent of showing us how/why via a character’s refusal to change or, in rare cases, making the erroneous decision to do so when he was on the right path all along.)


By allowing the story to explore the nature of Regan’s malady, the audience – as well as the main character – are afforded opportunities to see the problem from various perspectives: is it an illness?  Is it psychological?  Is it demonic possession?  All of these are touched upon, forcing Father Karras to confront his own lack of faith after the death of his elderly mother.  The evidence mounts while other explanations are exhausted, leaving Karras with only one choice: to accept it as a demonic possession, which, in turn, as Blatty exclaims in his op-ed, spurs the notion if demons exist, then so too must God. To forgo all these prerequisites would be to strip the story of its meaning – particularly through Father Karras’s struggles – leaving us with a story that sputters along until it stalls on the page with the author (reader or even viewer) kicking dirt, left only to cherish a romanticized view without any inkling how to get it up and running again.

As Pirsig ultimately realizes in his book, both romanticism and classicism are needed – just as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needed both the force and an x-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star.  To become proficient at anything, one must develop their own analytical toolbox – constantly seeking to know details, understand inner workings and master the mechanics – but marrying that knowledge with their creative inspiration and intuition. Sure classicism sounds dull and tedious, much like like motorcycle maintenance itself does, but the notion is applicable to so much more – including writing.  Being a better “story mechanic?”  That was ultimately my English Teacher’s goal for our class despite the methodology (bang bang BANG BANG!) she often applied on our journey to get there.


About Jim Barker

A multi-award winning sculptor who uses a pen to shape words on a page that leave impressions in the mind.
This entry was posted in Dramatica, Journey, Story Structure, Theme. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Zen and the art of exorcising bad story analysis.

  1. thepissedoffpundit says:

    “Story mechanic” sounds good, but do you have a checklist of what makes an good story analysis? I don’t think that was very clear.


    • No, and intentionally so but I’ll try to explain.

      There are many ways and methodologies to analyze something. I have degrees in both film and psychology, so my basis for my concentration on the film end was interpretation – that was what the purpose for the psych degree; I analyzed films through the lends of psychology as opposed to say, sociology.

      If I were to analyze a story via Dramatica, I would be looking for all the variants that encompass what they deem a storyform – something which is vastly different than say analyzing a story through John Truby’s 22 beats (which, in themselves, vary depending on the genre and its specific requirements.)

      That’s where the reference to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is really apropos: Pirsig wrote it as a means to address “Quality.” In one section, he takes his students to task and asks them to try and define it. It’s impossible, yet, we know Quality when we see it.

      Pirsig ultimately deems Quality to be undefinable and his thesis is that to truly experience quality one must both embrace and apply it as best fits the requirements of the situation. The situation in this regard is “Story,” and no two stories are alike (well, I don’t want to make that a blanket statement but you know what I mean.)

      One’s analysis, whether it’s based on tools from Dramatica or something else, can still result in an attempt that’s not quite right. We just spent a some time re-analyzing The Sixth Sense a few weeks ago to find a better storyform that was more agreeable – but even that might be vastly different than what others would come with via some other means. As the quote from Hemingway suggests, it’s not the end product that’s always important – it’s the journey, and in this case the journey is one of learning.

      So no, no checklists from an analytical standpoint because it’s really incumbent on how one is looking at the story. At the same time, the quality aspect – you know it when you see it (or don’t) – holds true: the notion of the goal stated by a fellow writer just didn’t hold true and I was able to pick it apart via the rest of the story (perhaps much in the same way the inciting incident you brought up with regards to Script Lab’s analysis of The Godfather – it just didn’t feel right despite not being able to put your finger on it.)

      As a side note, this is exactly why I strongly dislike receiving coverage from some readers who believe your inciting incident should happen by a specific page. That’s pure formula, checklist stuff that makes me cringe. In a story that’s well told, the inciting incident happens when and where it needs to happen. It’s not that they’re absolutely incorrect by any means, but rather that they should focus on the story elements that should be moved or trimmed rather than having something happen on a specific page. That demonstrates an understanding of the craft and not just an opinion someone’s parroting because they’ve read it somewhere else.

      Liked by 1 person

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