Michaeline: Beetlejuice: Juggling the Ensemble

Betelgeuse in Orion: It takes a lot of stars to make a brilliant constellation. (Image via Wikimedia Commons, NASA Hubble photograph)

I love October! There’s a phrase in Japanese that goes “Reading Autumn” and I grew up reading all sorts of really great stories during the Halloween season. I haven’t had time for reading much lately, but made time to re-watch the 1988 film, Beetlejuice. (IMDb)

I think my Girls in the Basement were prompting me to do it, because afterward, I realized it had a very similar conflict structure to the story I’m working on.

From the beginning, Barbara and Adam Maitland show a lot of spunk, determination and love. There’s a hint of tragedy in the beginning, but all of their life is quickly overtaken by the fact that they wake up in their house after a car accident, and realize they didn’t survive the crash.

These are our main protagonists. In the first few minutes of the film, they fight a little with Barbara’s sister (who wants to sell their beloved house). They win the immediate battle by shutting her out, but lose the war when they die. The sister sells the house to Antagonists #2.

Antagonists #2 have a lot more going on than Barbara and Adam. Team Maitland basically speak and act with one heart and mind, often led by Barbara. But Charles and Delia Deetz? They have different goals entirely. Delia wants to be an important and influential artist. Charles initially just wants to recover his health from a nervous breakdown, but as he begins to feel better, his ambition to connect people to real estate returns. All that Team Deetz has in common is love, and even that is called into question. They support each others goals in the abstract, but are too busy with their own goals to actively help each other out. Delia wants to gut the house and turn it into a showcase, while Charles compromises by staking out one calm and peaceful room, and letting Delia turn the rest of the home into Horror House on the Hill.

Our ghosts, Barbara and Adam, are aghast. Restoring their home into the cozy, comfy, country aesthetic is one of their main goals, and now they’ve been invaded by the living who are doing terrible things to their project. It’s a nice flip in the typical ghost story – the dead are uncomfortable and discommoded by the living. The living don’t care and pursue their own (somewhat unrealistic) goals without noticing the ghosts at all.

The poster captures the conflict locks fairly well — Barbara vs. Beetlejuice. Adam is moral back-up, but does a lot of standing around with his head cut off. Those are the Deetzes down at the bottom, facing off Beetlejuice. (Poster via IMDb)

In the course of fighting the Deetzes, Barbara and Adam bring Beetlejuice into the mortal realm, so to speak. Beetlejuice is the third antagonist in the story. His goal is to escape the world of the dead, and he has to marry a mortal to do it. He chooses the Deetzes’ teenage daughter, Lydia, as his ticket out.

Now we have some tricky shifting in the conflict lines. Four teams (Team Maitland, Delia, Charles and Lydia) must unite to defeat Beetlejuice. I’m not sure where to place Juno, the Maitlands’ after-death case worker. She’s a very important part of the puzzle, but she switches teams, too, between antagonist and protagonist. She’s a Fount of Knowledge who can thwart or help the Maitlands, depending on whether their plans are foolish or solid.

In the end, the protagonist team is definitely led by Barbara. Everyone has a place in the puzzle, but the big showdown is finally between Barbara and Beetlejuice.

There’s a super epilogue, which wraps up a lot of loose strings, and confirms what we suspected during the story.

A very interesting thing is that in the cartoon sequel that followed the movie, Lydia and Beetlejuice pair up to fight . . . I’m not sure what. I’ve only seen a couple of episodes. But the shifting alliances are very important to keeping long stories – particularly series – interesting.

Too many characters is something I struggle with as a writer. I really like a complex plot where we have more than one protagonist, but I’m not always sure how to juggle all of them. Do you have any tips or tricks for writing with multiple protagonists?

All I can say is watching Beetlejuice helped flip a switch in my mind. Particularly, I need to think more about how my primary couple and my secondary couple can successfully compete and then successfully join forces. I will look at introducing an outside Grand Antagonist that helps to unite the two couples into one force. And I won’t worry too much about the side-characters, particularly if they are functional characters. The Fount of Knowledge. Or maybe The Bumbling Wrecker of Plans? And like Beetlejuice, it’s OK for characters to end the story with their needs met – even if they are antagonists at some point in the story.

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Beetlejuice: Juggling the Ensemble

  1. This is a really intriguing way of looking at Beetlejuice, which is one of my favorite movies. I don’t think I’ve ever thought any deeper than how much I love the music and how hilarious the “bits” are–like the afterlife’s waiting room, with the magician’s assistant who’s been cut in half and the guy with the shrunken head.

    No wonder it took me so long to learn to plot.

    • I haven’t watched this in years. I remember Geena Davis, and Winona Ryder, and being scared as well as amused. It was a very long time ago, and I need some help juggling my ensemble–sounds like the perfect excuse for a spooky movie night 🙂 .

      • Oh yes! It was terribly scary (at least one scene) in the theater — and so thematically important as well. It wasn’t as scary (for me) on subsequent viewings on the little screen. I do think the movie has aged pretty well in terms of style. The Maitland’s sense of style is really nostalgia-ville (as Otho says, “God save us from LL Bean” — 80s country restoration) but the other costumes and settings seem quite timeless. (-: Any excuse is a good excuse for a spooky movie night this month!

    • I don’t analyze things when I love them very much, but I was going down my daily rabbit hole of “Who is the protagonist in my story? Really?” And then I realized that maybe my Girls were nudging me to make time for a movie — that particular movie. My other choice for October is Ghostbusters, but I was getting a stronger vibe to “watch this!” about Beetlejuice.

      (-: I love the waiting room scenes in the afterlife. I totally missed some of the implications of their deaths (I was what? 19 when I saw it the first time?) The other thing I love is the clueless football team. Juno is just fabulous. And that magician’s assistant? LOL, setting boundaries like a true movie diva!

  2. To my shame, I’ve never seen Beetlejuice, and it went right on my Netflix queue, moved to the top. But as to your point, I don’t think you have to worry too much about too many characters, as long as they all have something to do. But I don’t see how they can be equal protagonists. I think readers need someone to identify with—a major character. The others can be important, have their own stories, contribute to the main themes and plots, but I don’t see how they can all be equally important. Then what’s the story, really?

    • That’s really true about someone generally needing to take the leadership role. And your comment makes me think I really need to pinpoint that moving forward, or I’m just writing a bunch of first draft. (Or, I should be satisfied that I’m writing a bunch of pre-draft, and I can delay the decision on Who’s the Boss until the True First Draft.)

      On this viewing of the movie, I was really struck by how much Barbara *was* the lead character in the movie. The Alec Baldwin character doesn’t really seem to have much agency, and that’s totally OK. Barbara and Beetlejuice have no quibbles at the start of the movie; the other characters and the plot moved them into position. Maybe Olivia can move from a relatively backwater environment to being front and center in the fight against The Old Ways? Hmmm. Maybe that’s my real struggle — getting her involved without her getting overwhelmed by the other characters (and y’all have seen Nixie on this blog, so you may have some idea what kind of charisma Olivia is working against). Jack has tons of charisma too, but no real agency . . . .

      (-: OK. I’m going to think about this a little more! Progress!

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