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Me and Earl and the Dying Girl: Two Levels of Sturcture
By Jacob Krueger
Hello, I’m Jacob Krueger and this is the Write Your Screenplay Podcast. As you know on this podcast, rather than looking at movies in terms of two thumbs up or two thumbs down, loved it or hated it, we look at them in terms of what we can learn from them as screenwriters. We look at good movies, we look at bad movies, we look at movies that we loved and we looked at movies that we hated.
This week, we’re going to be looking at Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, please be aware that this podcast does contain spoilers, which will change your experience of the movie.
And it’s interesting that these spoilers will change your experience of the movie because this should be an impossible movie to spoil. The title of the movie is Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The logline of the movie tells you it’s about a friendship between a teenage boy and a girl with cancer. And even the main character himself tells you, at the beginning of the movie, that he made a movie so bad that somebody died from watching it.
Every single thing about how this movie was constructed is basically telling you that this girl is going to die. And there’s an interesting thing that happens to an audience when they know they’re watching a movie that’s going to hurt them: they start to put a little cocoon around themselves to protect themselves from getting hurt.
Whether you loved or hated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl– whether you were part of the crowd that was ready to stand up and cheer at the Sundance premiere (after which the film was immediately snagged up after a fierce bidding war) or whether you’re one of the more skeptical audience members who have accused the film of being cliché in its depiction of Earl and of its self-aware film references– one thing that you have to admit about Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is that, for all its humor and all its fun, ultimately the movie is devastating.
It’s not easy to devastate an audience. Especially when they come to a movie called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s not easy to actually move them to a point of personal exposure with a film like this, because of the protective wall that the audience is naturally going to put up between themselves and the film.
So, I want to talk today about how you get an audience to take down their walls.
In lesser hands, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a Lifetime movie. In lesser hands, it’s just another movie in a long line of melodramatic tearjerkers: the kind of movie that makes you cry but doesn’t really change your life. The kind of movie that makes you cry in a safe way.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl does not make you cry in a safe way. And the reason for this is that it sucks you into seeing the world through the character’s eyes, forcing you to lower your guard and expose your own vulnerability.
As I’ve mentioned, the film has taken a lot of criticism for this. It’s been argued that Rachel (the girl who is dying of cancer) exists for no other reason than to force the main character, Greg, to change. It’s been argued that Greg is a total narcissist who is so completely unaware of anybody other than himself in the world.
But I completely disagree. For me, what is wonderful about this movie and what is successful about this movie is exactly the way it pulls you into Greg’s perspective, as narcissistic and self-involved, and downright teenage as it might be.
The most obvious way it does this is by lying to you.
This movie lies to you. Greg specifically tells you in his voiceover that this girl doesn’t die. In fact, he does it multiple times! He keeps reminding you that this girl doesn’t die.
And this should not be something that works in a movie.
You should not be able to tell your audience that the girl doesn’t die and then kill her at the end. But the reason it works in this film is that, by telling you the girl doesn’t die, it pulls you into the perspective of the main character. It forces you to see the movie through the eyes of a boy, who even though he knows she’s dying, simply cannot accept it, even long after she has accepted it herself.
There’s a devastating line just after Rachel passes away when Greg tells you (I’m paraphrasing here), “I know I said she didn’t die… I really believed she wouldn’t.”
If anything encapsulates the truth of Greg’s experience, it’s that line. If anything encapsulates the truth of what it is to deal with someone going through cancer, it’s that line. If anything encapsulate the truth of what it means to know someone is dying but still be unable to accept it, it’s that line.
And if you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know that’s exactly what it feels like.
In a way, as writers, we’re always lying to the audience. It’s our job to make the inevitable feel unpredictable. And I’m going to be talking later about how you can use a specific kind of structure in your screenplay to deliver your story to the audience in the most effective way.
But the best kind of lie for a writer to tell is the lie that tells the truth.
The reason that lying to the audience works in this movie is that the main character is also lying to himself. And, in this way, the writer is pulling you into the character’s perspective rather than manipulating you like a typical cancer movie.
Rather than jerking your tears with melodrama and rather than making it about the cancer, this writer succeeds by making it not about the cancer. Instead, this writer makes it about Greg.
This is not a movie about cancer. This is a movie about a boy who is so afraid of getting hurt that he can’t even call his best friend in the world his friend. He has to call him a “business associate.” It’s a movie about a child of privilege, who is so caught up in his own teenage angst that he can’t take action in his own life or do something nice for someone else unless he’s pushed to do it. It’s a movie about a boy who is not only lying to us, but also lying to himself.
And Greg isn’t only lying to himself about Rachel’s death. He’s also lying to himself about her life, and about their relationship.
Greg repeatedly lies to us about the idea that he’s not falling in love with her. He tells us that if this were a different kind of movie, they would fall in love and learn life lessons together, but that this is not that kind of movie.
Greg repeatedly tells us this, even as we watch the real love story unfolding in front of our eyes. He keeps on telling us that it’s not happening, keeps telling us that he’s not falling in love with her. Just like he keeps telling himself that he’s not in love with her. He keeps telling us that she’s not dying, just like he keeps telling himself that she’s not dying.
And what this illustrates is a concept called Primary Structure.
Oftentimes writers– especially writers of character-driven dramas– want to make the audience cry. And oftentimes, we fall into the trap of trying to make the audience cry without actually crying ourselves. We try to make the audience cry without making our characters cry or without having to fully step into what it’s like to be our character at that moment.
So I’d like you to think of films as having two different levels of structure. There is the Primary Structure, which is the story that the character is telling themselves as they experience the events of the movie. In other words, the Primary Structure is the character’s journey inside the film.
On the simplest level, in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Greg’s journey is that he starts out as a dude who is terrified of making friends. He wants to belong to no clique to make sure that he doesn’t get ostracized from another clique. He wants to refer to Earl, his best friend in the world, as his business associate so he doesn’t have to risk getting hurt by a friend. And he wants to hang out with Rachel for one reason and one reason only: his mom forced him.
Now, that’s the story he’s telling himself. That’s who he believes himself to be. And the Primary Structure of movie is Greg coming to realize whom he cares about in the world. The primary structure is Greg coming to realize that Earl is right, that he hasn’t taken any action that hasn’t been forced upon him, that he hasn’t been driving his own destiny, that he hasn’t been choosing the things he wanted, and that he hasn’t been taking care of anybody but himself.
The primary structure of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg’s journey and the change that Greg goes through in making himself vulnerable.
If you want to have a Primary Structure, you need to have a main character. And if you’re going to have a main character, the way you know you have a main character is that your main character has a problem. And that problem is something inside of them. It is not something external.
There might be something that’s happening to bring that problem to the surface, but it’s got to be an internal problem, otherwise the movie ends up happening to the character rather than by the character.
Greg is a great main character because Greg’s got a problem. Greg is a child of privilege. Greg’s a kid who has never had to make his own way. Greg is a guy who has an extreme level of self-loathing, not only about his body image, but also about his art. That’s a feeling that probably a lot of us, as filmmakers, can understand: feeling like everything we make is crap, like we can’t really capture that thing inside of us.
Greg is a guy who is so afraid of getting hurt by a friend, that he can’t even acknowledge the real friends that are in front of him. A guy who is so afraid of getting hurt that even eating in the lunchroom is terrifying. Greg is a guy with a problem. And that problem doesn’t happen to him it happens by him. And that problem is brought into focus by the external force of cancer.
What’s so great about the primary structure of this movie is that we spend the whole movie inside of Greg’s perspective. We see Rachel the way that Greg sees Rachel, as half-formed and idealized as that may be.
In fact this is one of the beautiful things in the book that didn’t make it to the film in words, but certainly made it into the film in terms of execution.
In the book, as Greg’s preparing to show Rachel the movie that he made for her, Greg says that what was so bad about the movie is that even though he made the movie for Rachel, it actually ended up being not about Rachel at all. It ended up showing how little he actually knew about Rachel. It ended up being about him.
And that’s Greg’s problem. It’s all about him. And him doesn’t like him. And him is terrified of him. This character goes on a journey where he lies his way through opening himself up to someone who is going to die. He goes on a journey from being the dude getting trampled by a moose every time the hot girl in high school looks at him, to becoming the guy who turns down the prom date with her in order to spend time with his friend.
The primary structure of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is Greg’s journey in relation to the hot relationships in his life, the changes in his relationship with Earl, and with Rachel and with the hot girl from school, and with Mom and with Dad and with his art and ultimately with himself
And when your building primary structure, basically what you want to do is say: “screw the audience, screw setting anything up, screw establishing, screw manipulating, screwing making sure that it’s clear to everybody that watching.” And instead allow yourself to step into the character and experience the world through their eyes.
If you build a strong primary structure in your movie, if you build a strong change for your main character– a structure in which your character is changing in each act and each scene, in which the movie is not happening to them through the contrivances of the plot, but happening by them through the choices that they make, even if the choices are lies that they’re telling themselves—if you build your screenplay in this way, very little bad can happen to you.
Unfortunately for many writers, this is a very difficult thing to do, because it means abandoning a lot of the things we’ve learned about writing. It means abandoning the outline where you planned every single event, and instead surrendering to the messy chaos of your characters lives. It means abandoning your desire to force the screenplay to go where you want it to go, the urge to set up the next scene or the trick ending rather than sitting honestly in the scene you’re writing, and instead surrendering to the chaos of your character making their own choices, which sometimes don’t line up with yours, and sometimes don’t lead you where you think you want to go.
Building your primary structure means surrendering to your own instincts and the things that surprise you about the character. And you can see this happening even in the way that the movie was built.
One of the truly fabulous things about this film are all the mini-movies that Greg and Earl have made, which are peppered throughout the film in hilarious little clips. During the filming of this movie -they shot it in only 25 days – they set a second unit up to make all these little movies. Ultimately they made somewhere close to 21 different movies. Basically, any time the actors were just sitting around, they grabbed the actors and started making little mini-movies with them.
And that’s a pretty chaotic way of building a movie. It isn’t about planning everything out, but about playing and experimenting and seeing where things go. And what’s really incredible is that the director actually ended up using almost all of that footage, chopping it up in different ways and making it structural.
That’s a surrender to your process. That’s a letting go of trying to control everything, and instead learning how to utilize the things that are right in front of you.
Because, in a way, as screenwriters we all make the mistake that Greg makes. We all get so caught up in our anxiety about our writing, our own futures and our insecurities about ourselves, that we end up overlooking the beautiful things that already exist right in front of us.
For example, you probably noticed, nearly every time that Greg comes into Rachel’s room, we see the scissors that are displayed above her desk. During one of his conversations with her mom, they even talk about how she cut up all her dad’s books after the divorce because she was so angry – that’s how her mom sees it.
Greg is so obsessed with where he’s trying to go and what he’s trying to do, that he doesn’t stop (just as oftentimes we don’t stop as writers) to look at what’s right in front of him in the room and ask Rachel “Hey! What do you do with all those scissors? Why do you have scissors hanging up on your wall?”
And it’s not until after she’s gone that he actually learns what she does with those scissors– that he actually learns the true beauty of this person with whom he’s been spending so many hours! It’s not until he takes the time to think about something other than himself, that he can discover who Rachel is: not by extrapolating something out into the future, but by looking at the thing that was right in front of him the whole time.
When you build Primary Structure, you need to allow yourself to look at what’s right in front of you the whole time. You need to allow yourself to look truthfully at who your character is, to use every object in the room, to sit in your scenes rather than trying to get through them, to fully see the people that you’re writing.
Now, there’s also another kind of structure. And that kind of structure is extremely alluring to young writers and it’s even more alluring to professional writers. It’s really easy to get caught up in this kind of structure, which I call Secondary Structure.
The reason it’s so easy to get caught up in Secondary Structure is that it doesn’t hurt and—though it may take a certain amount of craft—comparatively, it’s not that hard. It hurts to look inside ourselves and find the characters who live there. It hurts to put our own personal truth on the page. It’s scary to look around the room and notice something, and realize you don’t know what it is, and have to explore until you find out what those scissors are actually for. It can be terrifying to give our characters the reins and let them drive us. It feels so much safer to instead focus exclusively on Secondary Structure, even though as a writer, it’s just about the most dangerous mistake you can make.
Secondary Structure is the structure that the audience tells themselves as they watch the movie. Secondary Structure is way that the audience experiences the film.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that Primary Structure is right and Secondary Structure is wrong. The best films have both. In fact, one of the things that makes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl work so darn well is that its Secondary Structure exists to amplify the Primary Structure.
The way we tell ourselves the story of the movie as the audience reflects the way that Greg is telling himself the story as the character. It forces us to see the world through his eyes, rather than through our own. It forces us to become the naïve child who is lying to himself because he doesn’t want to deal with the thing that’s so obvious from the title of the movie: the fact that the girl is dying. He doesn’t want to deal with the fact that he wants to go to college. He doesn’t want to deal with the fact that he wants friends. He doesn’t want to deal with the fact that the movies he’s making and talking about so dismissively actually matter to him, even though they make him feel vulnerable and exposed.
In the best movies– and we can see this in complicated movies like Memento or Adaptation or even silly movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Primary and Secondary Structure work to serve one another.
Primary structure grows out of character. It comes from getting in touch with the living characters inside yourself and allowing them to steer the ship rather than you feeling like you need to steer it yourself. Secondary Structure is about craft: is the way that you put your script together on the page in order to put your audience into shoes of your character, the way you chop things up and move things around. It’s the way that you package the great internal product of your primary structure in order to deliver it to the audience in the most effective way.
Primary Structure is the gift you’re giving to your audience. And Secondary Structure is the packaging that makes them want to open it!
The mistake that most writers make is that they end up building the package before they build the product. In other words, they end up building all the things that are designed to create a good experience for the audience before understanding what those things are actually supposed to hold.
And this goes wrong for a couple of reasons:
First, it takes years to build craft. Primary structure you can learn to do right now, because your personal truth already exists inside of you. It is already there in the story that you’re telling yourself everyday. Every movie, every character you ever will write is already existing inside of you.
And so, if you focus on Primary Structure, even if your craft is not so great, even if it’s your first screenplay, you still have a chance of telling a great story. For example, when Diablo Cody wrote her first screenplay, Juno, her craft wasn’t perfect. She didn’t yet know how to write characters who spoke differently from each other. But boy, her art was there, her Primary Structure was fantastic. And who cares if all of the characters spoke like Diablo Cody! By putting her own personal truth on the page, she transcended the lack of craft.
Now, there are occasionally writers whose craft is so good that they can fake it and trick us. So good that they can actually manipulate us into emotion without having to experience the emotion themselves, without having to put their personal truth on the page. But boy is it hard!
It’s going to take years and years of experience in order to build enough craft to effectively manipulate an audience. Otherwise you end up sounding like many writers do: like a used car salesman. Like someone who’s acting like they are being truthful, but you can just feel the smarminess on them.
And the equivalent to this in writing is this habit we have of setting things up, establishing this, laying in the trick ending, pulling all the strings like we’re some kind of puppet master when we haven’t yet learned how to master the puppet. And we don’t even really know what the puppet is or what the story is about.
So, as writers, we need art, and we need craft and we need the fusion of the two. This is the kind of three-pronged approach to writing that we try to foster here at the Studio, with our Meditative Writing class on the art side, our Craft Intensive on the craft side and our Write Your Screenplay Workshop fusing the two together.
You need the three of them. But if you’re not sure what door to go through, go through the Primary Structure door first. Take a character who has a problem, take them on a journey that’s built by their choices, build a structure organically around your instincts and your character’s choices rather than around your plans, and then start applying the craft you need in order to deliver that to the audience in the most effective possible way. Ideally, in order to put your audience in the shoes of your main character. So that your audience can let their guard down and experience the movie as if it were real.
I hope you enjoyed this podcast. If you would like to study with me in NYC, Online or on one of our international screenwriting retreats, please visit my website WriteYourScreenplay.com.
Smart, very instructive and helpful, thanks!
Wow! Jacob, I’ve listened to many of your free podcasts and they’re all very good. But, this one was exceptional!
I wish I could afford you…
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