Browsing the archives for the resolution tag.
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How Do You Forgive People Who Won’t Admit They’ve Done Anything Wrong?

States of mind

In recent posts like “3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding” and “You, Me, and the Dalai Lama” I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve been learning and contemplating from listening to recorded talks by the 14th Dalai Lama after having the good fortune to see him speak in person last month. At the end of his talks, he generally takes questions, and one of the questions that seems to come up pretty frequently is how to forgive someone who won’t admit they’ve done wrong.

When relationships in our life are disrupted or hurt through some past or present trouble, it can be a constant drain. In some cases the problem can be solved–or at least mostly solved–by cutting ties: friends who mistreat or lie to us, for instance, are sometimes not friends worth having, at least not if we’re trying to lift ourselves up by keeping company with people we admire.

In many cases, though, cutting ties is either not an option or too drastic an option, for instance when immediate family members do something (or a lot of things) that we find harmful. Even when it’s possible to stop communicating with a family member, the problem can still fester, and of course cutting off a family member creates its own problems.

So another avenue is to have a heart-to-heart discussion with the person who has done the harmful thing to try to understand and forgive. Of course this approach is a big improvement on simply cutting ties, and it’s likely to bring more peace. But what if the other person doesn’t want to be forgiven? What if the other person doesn’t even agree that there was any wrongdoing? For that matter, what if the person keeps doing the harmful thing?

A situation like this begins to make it clear what real compassion and forgiveness are. For us to feel compassion or forgiveness toward another person, that person doesn’t have to act according to our preferences or beliefs, because there is a difference between the person and the action. We can and should condemn actions that we think are harmful or unjust, but even while doing that we can accept and feel compassion toward that person. We can even feel compassion toward people we oppose.

I admit, this isn’t an easy thing to do, but at least the steps are clear. All we have to do is say “I condemn what you’ve done, but I support you“–and mean it.

There’s another piece of this, an important one: forgiveness and peace of mind are matters that happen within ourselves, not outside us. If we want peace of mind, we have to take complete responsibility for it ourselves. If we let even a small part of our peace of mind depend on what other people do, then we open ourselves to being disturbed and angered and made unable to act and think as we wish based on things other people do, things outside of our control.

In the same way that we can release anger that might come up from, say, getting cut off in traffic by reminding ourselves “I can’t make other people drive the way I want them to,” letting go of any feeling of possession about other people’s wrongdoings is necessary to feel peace of mind in troubled relationships and to offer compassion and support even to people whose actions we condemn.

Photo by h.koppdelaney

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Three Act Structure: Essential Framework or Load of Hooey?


Back in July, Film Crit Hulk posted this discourse on the utter uselessness of three-act structure. In case you’re not already familiar with three-act structure, it’s an approach often recommended as a key tool for writing, especially with screenplays.

The version of three-act structure Hulk takes apart in his post (“setup, rising action, resolution”) is indeed pretty useless–but it’s not useless because three-act structure is trash: it’s useless because it’s been oversimplified to the point of being hopelessly vague.

Three-act structure certainly isn’t something a successful writer needs to follow, but it can be a hugely useful tool if used properly.

Act I
In effective three-act structure (says me), the first act constitutes pitting the character against the conflict. Generally speaking, the incident that defines the transition from Act I to Act II is the protagonist committing to taking on the central problem; before that there’s resistance, avoidance, lack of understanding, etc. Simultaneously, you introduce the reader/viewer to the protagonist and the protagonist’s world. Referring to it as “setup” is trouble, because that sounds like you’re supposed to dump a bunch of background information or move characters uninterestingly into position.

Act II
Act II starts with the protagonist doing something to join the action, which usually means actively striving to make the situation better. Act II comprises repeated attempts by the protagonist to resolve the central story problem, usually resulting in disasters that up the stakes (hence “rising action,” though “rising action” makes it sound like it’s supposed to be some kind of an upward slope rather than a cycle that gets bigger each time through). I agree with Hulk that the movie Green Lantern sucks on this count, as Hal in the movie is reactive to circumstances instead of proactively trying to do something. It’s much more interesting to watch a character push to try to accomplish something–even (or perhaps especially) if that something is ill-considered–than it is to watch the character get hit with a bunch of plot developments and not do anything meaningful about them.

Act II ends with the introduction of the final gambit: this is where the protagonist commits to an all-or-nothing bid to make the thing happen. Thus Act III is the character trying to make that last plan work and probably having to adjust or reframe right in the middle of it (since if everything works as planned, it’s kinda boring).

Five acts?
Hulk points out that Shakespeare wrote in five acts, but Shakespeare’s stories can also be considered in the light of real three act structure. The turning point between the first and second acts is where Romeo leaps the orchard fence prior to the balcony scene (Act II, scene 1), after which the two lovers commit to each other despite their families’ enmities. They struggle to be together, marry, have their moment of love, and Romeo has his run-in with Tybalt throughout the second act.

Act III is the desperate gambit, Juliet’s plan to fake her death and how that pans out (Act IV, scene 1). Note that Shakespeare puts act breaks in both these places.

If you’re concerned that three-act structure is formulaic, I’d suggest that you can ease your mind. Three-act structure is a set of ideas about tension and satisfaction that suggest a way to structure a story. You can’t simply plug in details to get a good story: good writing always takes craft and artistry, regardless of whether it’s on a framework.

Not every good story fits three-act structure. However, it’s a very widespread and successful approach to story writing if properly understood. It has certainly been useful to me!

By the way, I later followed up this post with an additional one: Three-Act Structure: Answers to All Your Questions.


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