First let me say that I don’t believe every story has to be heart wrenching or make the reader cry. Plenty of books are funny or heartwarming or emotional in other ways. The reason I use this movie as an example is because it’s extreme and a perfect example of one way to evoke emotion.  When I find a perfectly plotted story or movie, I’m in plot hog heaven. For me this is one of the most beautifully plotted stories I’ve ever seen. This movie has every element I know and teach about, and most of all—in a really big way—it has emotional impact.

I’ll just tell you now, if you don’t already know, it has a sad and terrible ending, and I think they might have done it differently, but I use my blissful coping mechanism of making up my own alternate ending to get me past it. And the end isn’t the part that makes me cry, anyway.

The story revolves around Trevor McKinney, a responsible 7th grader who, though small in stature, makes an attempt to interact with the world. His inciting incident is when his teacher challenges him by planting the idea to change the world. On his way home from school, Trevor observes people living in deplorable conditions.

Trevor is motivated by a father who abused his mother. Trevor is glad his father is gone, but he believes life sucks. Metal detectors at school and his mother’s alcoholism reflect his life philosophy. While Trevor’s long range goal is to change the world, he starts with his short range goal—one person at a time and brings home Jerry, a homeless guy.

Trevor’s character flaws aren’t really flaws to me because he’s just a kid. He’s afraid to help his friend at school, so he feels cowardly. His first conflict is when Jerry shoots up and Trevor crosses him off the list. Next he tries to help his friend, Adam, but Adam gets beaten up by the bullies.

You have to look at all of these elements side by side to see how beautifully they intertwine with the other characters.

Arlene McKinney is a Trevor’s mom, a struggling change girl at a casino, waitress at a strip club, and an alcoholic. Her inciting incident is when Trevor brings home the homeless guy. This event sets the whole rest of the story in motion (but one person’s inciting incident doesn’t ALWAYS have to be the same as another’s.)

Arlene’s motivations are brilliantly created for emotion and depth of characterization. She has an alcoholic mother, a history of sexual abuse, a history of making bad choices in men—and she too is challenged by Trevor’s teacher. Her long-range goal is to get clean and establish self-worth. The steps she has taken are to remove her mother from their lives and join AA. She is determined to support herself and her son, and she needs Trevor to believe in her.

Divided into external and internal goals: Her external goals are to earn a living, take care of her son, and get sober. Her internal goals are self-worth, self-respect, and to be a better mother than hers.

Her character flaws are that she’s straightforward and challenging, but she’s afraid to connect emotionally.

Arlene’s conflicts are numerous: Time constraints from working two jobs, alcohol, confusion over her ex, and her internal constant quandary and conflict over whether or not she’s doing the right thing or being a good mother.

Eugene Simonet is Trevor’s social studies teacher. He’s highly educated and uses his knowledge for safety and protection. His motivations are an abusive father, being a burn victim, his longing for family, and major psychological scars. Long range he needs to sustain the status quo that keeps his life manageable, maintain his routine and inspire his students. This character’s backstory is crucial to his character, but isn’t revealed to the viewer until it’s important to the other characters and to the story—an important lesson to remember and a technique to hone.  Make the reader want to know background by first making him care.  His father was an abuser and when Eugene tried to protect his mother, the man set him on fire.  He is severely scarred.  That was his prime motivating incident.

Mr. Simonet’s external goal is to inspire students to see possibilities and make the world a better place.  Short range, he wants to be safe, protect himself from emotional hurt, and he gives his class an assignment filled with possibilities, because one of them might actually pull it off.  Later his goal becomes the desire to save the boy who reminds him of himself. Though he craves acceptance, his internal goal is to be safe.  He keeps his life manageable through routine and doesn’t risk opening up.  He hides behind words and his education (character flaws). He’s trapped inside himself; caring makes him vulnerable; he’s inhibited and defensive. His external conflict is first Arlene’s anger with him and later her attraction to him. His internal conflict is that caring for Trevor and his mother make him vulnerable. His fear of the unknown threatens his safety. His fear of rejection keeps him at arm’s length. He can’t change his own life.

In Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight Swain says to think of categorizing your characters by using an adjective and noun of vocation, such as a know-it-all professor, or a stage-shy actress.  This also shows their built-in differences.

He’s a highly educated teacher.
She’s a struggling change girl at a casino and waitress at a strip club.
Arlene is straightforward and challenging.
Eugene is inhibited and defensive.
Isn’t that a perfect setup for conflict?

When Jerry and Adam fail as Trevor’s projects, he tries to hook up his mother with his teacher, but at the black moment that’s a fail, as well.

Powerful examples of dialogue used for effect:
·                Arlene and Trevor don’t communicate. He pours out her liquor and she denies she’s sneaking it. So when Jerry speaks to Arlene about Trevor’s belief that everything sucks, she asks with incredulity,” He talks to you about this?” Right there I get choked up, because she’s trying so hard and feels so alienated from her own child. Her pain and feelings of futility and inferiority are in those simple words. And Jerry replies, “We’ve had our discussions.” At that moment, her attitude toward Jerry changes. If this homeless guy has such insight into her child, she needs to change her attitude. She invites him in for coffee.

·                In a very honest and innocent way, Trevor reaches out to Eugene and asks what happened to his face. Eugene, conditioned by years of being scarred and thinking the other kids put him up to it for kicks, asks if Trevor drew the short straw that day. When Trevor turns and walks away, past the group of kids who aren’t paying any attention, Eugene’s face shows his surprise and regret. Someone reached out to him, and he was closed off for protection.

·                After the bus station incident, when Arlene has to ask Eugene, a near stranger for his help to find Trevor because she has no one else, she says to Trevor, “I have a problem.” Oh my goodness, the emotion and conflict hidden in those simple words make me cry every time—and I’ve probably watched this movie twenty times—and then her son hugs her. She has an addiction that has taken over her life and her self-respect, and she’s pleading with him that she can do it if he’s on her side.

·                The dialogue when Arlene invites Eugene to come for dinner some time, and he rejects her is so believable. Oh boy, rejection when she was risking being vulnerable. But she confronts him and he tells her he needs his routine or he’s lost. She says, “I can reject you. You’re too quick for me.”

·                Eugene tells Trevor he’s getting an A in the class. Trevor says, “I don’t care about the grade. I just wanted to see if the world would really change.”

There are surprises in store for the viewer. Grace is one of them—Arlene’s mother. And her thread is woven into the same theme. The timeline is disjointed in order to tell this story with pacing and surprises—and it follows the reporter who is tracking pay it forward, but not in chronological order. Tough to explain unless you’ve seen it, then you get it.

Trevor’s fear is that his dad will come back. The better life he’s only tasted will be snatched away. Of course that is his black moment—his dad comes back and Arlene thinks she should give him a chance.

I always work on comparing and contrasting to bring our emotion, and the comparisons in this story are huge. Visually and setting-wise, the flashy lights and big money of the casinos and hotels are a backdrop to the burning trash barrels over which the homeless warm themselves. Another beautiful contrast is Eugene’s scarred discolored skin against Arlene’s perfect and lovely face when they kiss. Oh, and Bon Jovi in all his pretty-boy perfection of appearance compared to Kevin Spacey as a burn victim speaks volumes.

So Eugene leaves Arlene and the ex to go back to his safe routine, but he’s been burned again, not literally this time, but he won’t risk hurt again. But when the ex drinks and starts winding up for trouble, Arlene says to Trevor, “I think I made a mistake.”

Wow. And Trevor replies, “Everyone makes mistakes.”
But it’s too late for her to take up with Eugene again. Trevor asks Eugene to pay it forward by giving Arlene another chance. “That’s why this is the one,” he says. “Because it’s supposed to be something hard.” Powerful dialogue that wrings a reaction from the viewer. But Eugene can’t let himself do that.

I explained Trevor’s black moment when his dad came back and his mom let him stay. Eugene’s black moment is the same. He took the leap and it hurt. Arlene’s black moment is that she repeated the same mistake she made before, but this time she hurt them all and lost Eugene.

Growth and realization for each one: Trevor was quick to forgive his mom. The world’s not all shit. He learns compassion for people who are afraid to change. Eugene exposed his flaws, told Arlene his story, admitted he needed her, and in the end he forgave her; Arlene faced herself, forgave her mother, and knows her son made a difference.

Meanwhile in all this, Arlene goes to her mother and says, “I forgive you.” This is so BIG. This is her pay it forward. And this sets the ball in motion for everything else that happens, in retrospect. Forgiveness. We recognize how badly Arlene has messed up, and yet Trevor forgives her—and she needs Eugene to forgive her, but that’s not forthcoming. But she learned something and forgives her mom.

So the reporter finds Trevor and sets up an interview. During the interview, to which Arlene and Eugene are both listening, Trevor tells how his mom forgave his grandma, and how he got to see her for his birthday, and how hard that was for his mom. He says,
“My mom was so brave.” Well, I lose it there, too—every time. Those words jog Eugene out of his safe routine and protective shell, and he goes to Arlene and asks her not to let him be one of those people that Trevor was talking about, one of those people who are too afraid to take a chance.

All the characters in this story are wounded characters. The pay it forward backstory is woven throughout the current story. Universal themes that the writers tapped into are hope for humanity, life goes on, forgiveness and acceptance. The key story question is can one person make the world a better place? and the key phrase is it’s possible.

Kevin Spacy’s character backstory is crucial to his character, but it isn’t revealed until it’s important to the other characters and to the story. This is a technique to hone: Make the other characters need to know what happened in the past – and make the reader want to know. And in order for the reader to want to know, you first have to make him care.

The writers made us care about these story people. All the characters in Pay it Forward are connected by the theme can one person make the world a better place?

When I suggest that you study the books and movies that work for you and keep a notebook or a journal, these are the kind of things it will help you to look for. My character grids for this story are uploaded to the files area so you can study each element of the story for every character and see how they flow into each other.

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