In the last entry, I listed a series of questions that I wanted to answer by way of breaking the novel Ordinary People — and not yet the film — into scenes, recorded on color-coded index cards.
The cards turned ideas into objects with heft and weight; they pointed me toward a material discovery: The number of cards (that is, scenes) assigned to the teenaged Conrad (73 out of 115 total) helped me to recognize him as the story’s clear protagonist.
In contrast, reading the novel had left me with the impression that Conrad’s father, Cal, (with 27 cards) might be a dual protagonist — Judith Guest tells her story in the intimate third-person, but she alternates between Conrad’s and Cal’s points of view.
On the flipside, while Conrad takes the lead in the overwhelming majority of scenes, his mother, Beth, takes the lead in only 15 of 115, and his psychiatrist Dr. Berger appears in only 9, yet both characters’ actions make the story’s arc possible.
Ultimately, it seemed like a good idea to approach any story as a potential ensemble piece because the amount of screen time characters receive doesn’t necessarily determine their importance and shouldn’t limit their ability to make a deep impression, no matter how transitory.
When you strip away description and narration from a novel — even those so-called “plotless” ones — you’re left with what my dad and I call the story’s golden thread. And, no, it’s not just another name for the “barebones central plotline”:
Unique to each story, it defines not just what happens but why it happens.
By finding and following the original story’s trajectory, adapting screenwriters will stay true to their source material.
The cards connected me with the golden thread of Ordinary People, and helped me to identify the inciting incident, turning points, and midpoint (of the novel):
|Inciting Incident:||Conrad’s agreement to call Dr. Berger once he’d spent a month at home, after returning from the hospital.|
|First Turning Point:||Conrad’s decision to quit the swim team, marking his growing willingness to accept that he must change in order to grow.|
|Midpoint:||Conrad’s budding romance with Jeanine and the new closeness he finds with Cal.|
|Second Turning Point:||Conrad’s discovery that Karen has killed herself, forcing him to finally confront his own role in the accident that killed his brother.|