There’s this trick in screenwriting/storytelling called “Saving the Cat” in which you have your protagonist do something good, say on page fifteen or so of your screenplay, that way when the movie ends, and your character beats back the bad guys, the audience will be glad for him, and feel contentment about the story they just experienced. It’s true in life too.
It was troubling today, then, to see Alberto Contador bashing his teammate Lance Armstrong in a press conference in Spain. Contador won the Tour de France last week, and was supported by Team Astana, which had two other overall contenders in Levi Leipheimer and Armstrong. Armstrong, perhaps the crowd favorite, did have a realistic shot at winning his 8th Tour de France, but it wasn’t that realistic. Armstrong is now 37, more than ten years older than Contador. Contador proved aggressive from the start, breaking away from his own team on the first climb and gaining 8 seconds on Armstrong. This was not a move the team supported, but Contador was in it to win, and let everybody know it from the beginning. But cycling is a team sport. You need the other men on your team to lead you to the finish, as you use 30% less energy when you draft behind other riders. Usually, a team will support a single rider, always pacing them to a position to eventually pull ahead and win (think “shake and bake” from Talladega Nights and you get the idea). With Team Astana, it wasn’t clear in the beginning who the team was there to support. When Contador pulled ahead on the first climb, he was trumping all arguments and demanding that the team support him. And they did. Even Armstrong did.
To be fair, Contador was the strongest overall rider in the Tour, and he deserved to win. Even Armstrong said, after the race, that he doubts he could have even beat Contador at his prime, an incredibly kind thing for Armstrong to say, and perhaps a bit too humble, as it’s doubtfully true. What was surprising, then, was that Contador did not return the professional dignity afforded him by Armstrong. He is now showing a great deal of disrespect for Armstrong in his press conferences. It’s a move he will regret. There is no doubt that there was tension between the two riders over the last month in France. I am sure there were many silent hours around the dinner table.
But team dynamics and public dynamics are separate. Armstrong was protecting Contador’s public image, and Contador did not return the favor. Instead, he is acting jealous. Perhaps it got to him that, even though he was always in the lead, Armstrong was getting more coverage. It took Armstrong a while to learn some grace, too. He was young, once, and cocky and arrogant. But time, and no small number of personal missteps, has quieted the man. He handles the press with grace these days. And he is hardly in these races to win. During the Tour of California, Lance would ride one-hundred miles, only to get off his bike and head straight to a hospital, visiting with patients fighting against cancer. It is as though he was saying “as long as the cameras are on me, let me show you some people worth talking about.” Livestrong is one of the most successful non-profits around, and Lance and his attitude are the reason, along with winning seven Tours de France.
Is he perfect? Far from it. But in story, a character doesn’t have to be perfect. They can struggle against many a vice. But they have to do something to show us their heart, and their heart must be good. Robert McKee teaches that a character is revealed by the decisions a person makes under pressure. Character is not displayed by the decisions a character makes when they are just hanging out, when the tension is off, but rather when the pressure is ratcheted up. In the Alps, these past two weeks, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong may have been under more pressure than any other two competitors on the planet, and the decisions they made proved their character.
In the end, we cheered for the man who finished third, and we turned away from the winner, hoping some day he would figure it out. Save the cat. True in story structure, and true in life.
That said, next time you want to lash out at your boss, or cheat on your wife, or shoot the finger out your window, stop. Your character is revealed by the decisions you make under pressure. And nobody cheers for the winner when he doesn’t have character. Just say to yourself, today I will finish third. It was good enough for Lance.