The Jack Lord Rule
Remember Jack Lord? He played Steve McGarrett on the original Hawaii Five-O.
Jack Lord had a rule for himself as a character. The rule was: “I don’t ask questions. I answer them.”
I learned this from my friend Ernie Pintoff, who directed a gaggle of Hawaii Five-Os back in the day. According to Ernie, every time a script called for Jack Lord’s character to ask a question, Jack would stop the scene and refuse to read the line.
“I don’t ask questions,” he would say. “I answer them.”
When I first heard this, I thought, “What an insufferable egomaniac! People ask questions in real life. Particularly detectives, which is the role Jack Lord is playing. What’s his problem? Ask the freakin’ question!”
But Jack Lord was right.
What he understood (and I didn’t) was that he wasn’t playing a real person, he was playing a hero—and heroes are different from you and me.
This is a critical lesson for any young writer. We want our characters to be “real.” We want our heroes to be “relatable.” But characters are not real and heroes are not normal. They can’t be. If they were, they wouldn’t be heroes.
The hero drives the story. That’s his job. He (or she) is the one whose choices and actions turn the narrative and propel it forward toward the climax.
In Shawn’s new book The Story Grid, coming this Spring, he cites Robert McKee’s principle that the protagonist of any novel or movie must be physically and emotionally capable of pursuing his or her object of desire “to the end of the line.” What McKee means is that the hero cannot stop short of the ultimate act that the story requires. If he does, the reader or moviegoer feels cheated, even outraged. Luke Skywalker must attack the Death Star while trusting the Force; Captain Ahab has to go down lashed to Moby Dick; Clarice Starling must enter Buffalo Bill’s lair alone and in total darkness.
You or I, in real life, might not be so heroic. We might get off the train one or two stops before the end of the line. That’s why we’re not heroes. Heroes go all the way.
It is not a crime for us as writers to craft a hero who is smarter, tougher, and ballsier than we are. In fact we have to. The story, any story, demands it.
But back to the Jack Lord Rule.
Certainly a hero in a novel or a movie is permitted to ask a question. Jake Gittes did. Sam Spade. Dirty Harry. We don’t want to take Jack Lord’s Rule too literally. But when the hero asks a question, he makes sure it’s a question that drives the story forward—and it’s a question that nobody but the hero could have asked.
Heroes, by the way, do not have to be granite-jawed leading men like Jack Lord. Think of Duncan (Liam James), the ultra-dorky 14-year-old protagonist of The Way, Way Back. Heroes don’t come any nerdier than Duncan or more cowed by life. But before we judge him too hastily, let’s watch Duncan in action through the lens of the Jack Lord Rule.
True, Duncan starts off taking brutal psychological abuse from his mom’s boyfriend Trent (a very nasty Steve Carell). But in the end Duncan stands up to this tormentor. He confronts his mother Pam (Toni Collette) in a fiery scene at a nighttime barbecue. Duncan summons the guts to bolt from his family. He finds a job on his own (at the Water Wizz water park). He makes new friends; he finds an honorable mentor (Sam Rockwell). He creates a secret life for himself. He acquires a new and much cooler identity (“Pop n’ Lock”). Duncan even holds his ground with a sympathetic Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb), the girl he has a crush on, refusing to be untrue to himself.
Supernerd Duncan drives the action.
He is a hero.
He’s Jack Lord.