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Lesson #19 Orphan – Balancing Between Freedom and Relationships

Updated: Aug 16, 2019

The Orphan stage (the middle of act three) in feature film structure is usually manifested as the hero balancing between two main relationships in his world. Especially if the hero’s ‘wish’ and ‘need’ are represented in these relationships, in the Orphan archetype, more than anywhere else, it is going to be clear that the hero is walking on a thin rope between them. The Orphan is the most oppositional and relational of all the archetypes. He can see himself only in the mirror of others.

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Imagine your hero as a child whose parents are divorcing. The parents ask this hero child with whom he wants to be. The child is silent – he can’t decide. He knows that any answer is the wrong answer. It’s an impossible question, he thinks to himself.

“– I want you to be together.”

“Yes, but we are not going to be together, who would you like to be with?”

If he says he wants to be with his mom, his father would think he doesn’t love him. If he says he wants to be with his father, his mom would be sad…

“I know it’s because of me you were fighting, I did something wrong, please stay together, I will be better.”

“No, it’s not about you, we both love you very much – it’s just that it’s better for us not to be together anymore…”

“I don’t understand. Why?? It’s just not fair!”

They are both leaving me, he thinks, they don’t love me.

He is silent. He feels all alone, he feels abandoned. He is devastated. And will probably be for life.

If by any chance, he actually says with whom he wants to be, this is usually the parent who loves him less, at least this is what the child feels. Since he is more afraid to lose that parent, he chooses him. The parent who loves him is disappointed, and the parent who doesn’t care for him is not thrilled… Again, devastation… It’s a lose-lose situation.

Similar psychological dynamics appear if parents have such a strong bond that the child can’t become a part of the team. It also works if two kids are fighting for their mother’s and father’s affection – one child can always feel less loved.

This abandoned child in us is represented by the Orphan archetype on the Orphan stage of the feature film wheel structure.

Twenty years or so later, this child becomes an adult who is afraid of conflicts, and that’s why he always tries to please others. If, however, a conflict arises, the Orphan can see both sides as he is a natural-born diplomat. Because he is insecure and really afraid of relationships, he feels good in an elevated position, and usually he is a judge.

He dreams about being in a committed relationship, but he stays alone and safe, somewhere in between. A long time ago he was in a committed relationship and he ended up hurt… If he commits to someone again, who knows what will happen. People are trouble, relationships are unpredictable; this is what he believes.

It’s interesting, and maybe not so noticeable on the surface, but because of the Orphan’s core fear of abandonment, he will inevitably end up perfecting the art of relationships so much so that in the end, even though he is all alone, he will become a master of relationships.

That’s always so surprising.

Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel

What are his struggles and how does he achieve this perfection? What does it mean for feature film structure?

Because of this fear, but also because every relationship is a mirror of ourselves, the Orphan learns how to balance, that’s why we say that relationships are all about balance. The Orphan is also weigh between two impossible options. He is usually measuring something that cannot be measured, but he is still going back and forth with it: who got more, who got less, he tries to put an equal amount of everything on both sides of that relationship equilibrium, so that he can feel safe. Any emotional turbulence is not for him – if the tide is high, he knows that the result might be another abandonment. His is for harmony and justice. And also if you want to know what is unjust – ask him.

In partnerships, he might end up having two partners at once, or someone will be cheating on him… or he will choose someone who is already married… just so he can recreate that childhood memory where he can feel unsafely safe. This is how he will be in a position to choose sides, to find the right one for himself – but also to feel lonely.

As I said, usually in films, if the hero’s wish and need are both manifested in the form of relationships, then the plot will play out in exactly those kinds of situations.
It’s also interesting to point out that this archetype, and therefore this stage, strives for balance simply because it is out of balance. All the time. He just can’t make up his mind, and usually, this drives him crazy. This position can be nerve-racking.

He can ask himself what’s right and what’s wrong for ages and also what he did right or wrong… Once he makes up his mind, when he decides with whom he would like to be, (and that also means when he decides who truly he is) – in this brief moment, liberation and lightness come.

The Orphan realizes that for him, freedom is being out of that frustration that relationships bring. This is also the reason why he is able to be alone.

So, we can say that as much as the Orphan is about commitment, this archetype is also about freedom. And as you can guess, as soon as he feels free, he needs to return to relationships where he can balance again.

The Intuitive Screenwriting Wheel tells us where the real answer is, in other words, the only way out: It is in the opposing archetype. The Creator, or the heart, should choose for balance to come, one should love oneself more than others, and more than relationships in order to choose wisely.

Also, the heart’s choice is necessary for the hero to grow up and transition into the fourth act (which is going to happen in the Magician stage, right after the Orphan stage).

In this moment of the story it is our heart that finally speaks – maybe even screams, this is what I want, this is my wish, my desire – obey me. This is the real reason you are actually suffering, you forgot me, but you can’t live without me, I am the real intelligent force, not your mind, not what other people say… Listen to my voice because I am you and you are me – don’t ever give up.

I want this man, not the one that my parents say I should marry; I want to be a songwriter even thought my father doesn’t think I am talented; I wish for peace, even though everyone is fighting… I can create, I can be happy, I can live a perfect life, I have to solve this, so I can prove I am important, and so on and so on. It comes down to “I have to follow my dream,” and at the end of the day, I want to be a hero. It is pure inspiration, love, the healthy part in us that wants to be in the spotlight and celebrated.


Having all this in mind, our emotional formula for the Orphan -->Creator stage, goes like this:

The hero is balancing between two major relationships, or between freedom and a relationship, possibly even cheating, while fighting the fear of loneliness --> But the heart is now louder than ever.


Let’s now see how this formula works in some films that we have been analyzing:

Sunset Boulevard

In Sunset Boulevard, Joe is lying to Norma and sneaking off during the night to write with Beatty. Joe is asking himself, “should I leave Norma and be with Betty, or just forget about Betty…?” (The more in depth explanation you can find here).

This comes down to: The hero is cheating/balancing to find out with whom he belongs. His feelings are becoming stronger for Betty, this is his ‘need’ finally coming alive.


Birds are attacking children (orphans!) outside of the school, while Melanie and Annie are trying to protect and save them.

This example is really interesting because we have two women performing their caregiver abilities in the same situation, almost competing… and all that because Hitchcock wants to prove to us who is a better fit for Mitch. You remember what happens later (in the Magician stage): Annie (Melanie’s competitor) dies.

Fish Tank

Mia comes home after she was with the young guy. Because she is angry at her mom and at Conor, she says she just had sex with the guy. Her mother gives Mia a letter from the new school where she is planning to transfer her. She wants to get rid of her (orphan!).

The hero is lying about ‘cheating’ but this has an effect on Conor.

The peak of Orphan is that amazingly beautiful scene in which Mia is dancing for Conor while California Dreaming is playing. They have sex, it’s the first time for her. This is another ego victory for Conor, and for her is just a waste of the virginity for nothing.

She loses possible father – metaphorically she stays ‘orphan’ for the second time, and the scene is about actual cheating, they both cheat on Mia’s mom.

Force Majeure

Two friends, Tomas and Mats are at the ski lift. They talk about cheating and being committed to their families. Tomas says he is faithful, but he is lying. It cannot be more obvious that this is about balancing his needs (family) and his wishes (freedom). Later at the slopes, Tomas doesn’t feel alright. Mats suggests screaming – so Tomas screams: “Fucking hell.”

In the next scene, while they enjoy drinks, Tomas contemplates freedom. For a brief moment, he has a great time thinking that a girl is hitting on him, until she comes back and says, he is the wrong guy.

Would he use this situation to feel free again, if he had been the right one for her?

Furthermore, this scene is about the possibility of cheating. Here, the hero is balancing between family and freedom. If he chooses freedom, his kids might end up being orphans…



How is your hero going to balance his wishes and his needs and how is his fear of being alone driving him in this stage of the story?

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