Monday, November 23, 2009

A Screenwriting "Theory of Everything"

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


NO!!! Not another piece on structure! Okay, before you bail out on this post, give it a chance. I have something new, paradigm-shifting, and dare I say, powerful (I’ll leave “profound” out) to say about story structure. “Hear” me out, and read on:

Story structure is often seen as the choice made by the writer in how the plot elements or sequences of scenes are assembled. While this is one part of structure, it is not, itself, structure. The reason for this is that structure, as a concept, must be of significant use. Mere assemblage is insufficient, because when one examines all of narrative film, there are many, many, varying approaches. In the same way that “scene” refers to all scenes in drama, the word “structure” must apply to all structures in storytelling. Structure must address all of them and more, for if structure cannot be used by writers for the betterment of their writing, of what real value is it?

Most notions of story structure fail to offer a theoretical model to account for all of the wide structural variation across narrative stories. We’ve got three-act, four-act, five-act, seven-act, nine-act--it’s all an act!!! Without a model that can account for all variants, and for common terms, story structure amounts to a war among an ever-growing population of models, none of which fully describe their phenomena.

What is needed is, to borrow a concept from Physics, a “theory of everything”, a “Unified-Field Theory” of structure. William Goldman once wrote, “Screenplays are structure”. In other words, structure is everything. I, here, present a Unified-Field Theory of Story Structure, a screenwriter’s Theory of Everything. All of story-telling for movies can fit within it. And, no, I am not making this up. Others, before me, have seen it. Today, here (and in the next posts), I will merely formalize it and point out why it matters.

In architecture, structure is based on principles applicable across the wide variation in building designs seen throughout architecture. This allows for sound design for buildings as different as the Sears Tower and your garage. If an architect uses his own rules or theories of sound design to plan a building, it might go up, it might even stay up, but will it provide the structural support for a radical modification? Will it support other buildings of far different design? Will it be the building the user envisioned? What if the architect needed to modify the design to add something like a cantilevered wing extending out to one side? Would it pull the building down because of the new stresses to the structural frame-work? Structure must have broad application.

Another reason is that structure can and should be able to do more than just explain to writers how to assemble their stories. It must (and can) be capable of telling writers whether their ideas can even become solid and viable stories. It must be capable of telling writers whether their stories are worth being written, where they may be going astray, and just how valuable and/or profound they can be.

A third reason is that structure must provide a result that satisfies its users, the audience. A structural design that merely provides scene-assembly serving only the writer’s biases and preferences, but does not provide a satisfactory story to its consumers due primarily to an inherent confusion or a narrative flatness is a failed story. It’s incumbent on writers to serve their audiences with sound stories.

There has been a lot of confusion in the screenwriting community over structure. Some authorities say it is one thing, some another. A few even call the traditional three-act form of structure a “myth” and cite numerous examples (1) as evidence. In the next posts, I will show that each of the examples cited exhibits a multi-level structure that includes a deep level three-part structure akin to, but not, Syd Field’s three acts.

Note - As we will see in these posts, I am not subscribing to Field’s approach in recognizing his notion of the three acts. In fact, I believe Field has missed his own pivotal insight ever since he postulated it in his first book.

Linda Seger (2) and Dara Marks (3) have both recognized in print that story structure is a multi-level concept. But many, including even some who seem to recognize it (as I will show in the next post), later either forget it or dismiss it. As I’ve stated, there are reasons why a model of story structure is profoundly important to understanding stories, both for writers and for audiences. The multi-level concept does this.

The reason there has been so much confusion and disagreement over story structure is that there are numerous structural assemblages that are proven to work. And yet, if one looks, one will see the three-part model present along with the other models, simultaneously. What can this mean, but that they are both present? That implies multiple levels of structure.

The source of this insight, at least for me, goes back to Syd Field’s first book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. In that first (and later) edition(s) (4), Field stated that his primary Plot Points (PP1 & PP2) – the ones that preceded the transitions to each of the following acts – were “a function of character”. Thereafter, in his books, he seems to have forgotten this insight and keeps his thinking exclusively to plot-assembly.

But if one considers the structural changes signified by those primary plot points as functions of character-transformation, specifically the protagonist, one can immediately see how three part structure as it pertains to protagonist transformation, is accurate. And this can, but doesn’t have to, stand apart from any plot assembly. If one considers this three-part notion of character transformation alongside stories with scene-assemblage in other than three parts, it can lead to the confusion the screenwriting community has undergone (and which I will show in a future post).

There is no denying the wide variance in structural assembly of story plots. And there is no denying the three-part arc of transformation of the protagonist. So this means they are both present and must be considered as present upon separate story levels. Once this is appreciated, it allows the entire spectrum of narrative story to fit a multi-level structural model. It also avoids making that structural model unwieldy. It is still controllable, still able to give up its insights into story development. This is a way to look at story conception that provides all of the capabilities I listed at the end of paragraph six. So, let’s examine it up close:

This multi-level, multi-dimensional approach to structure allows for at least two, and sometimes three (or even more), levels from which structure springs. It assumes there is the dimensional level of time within which the other levels operate. First, there’s the surface level, where the plot is found, and a deeper level, where what the plot means is found. I’ll refer to these as the Physical (surface or plot-level) and the Logical (interior or meaning-level). On occasion, there can be an additional, deeper level below these two, a sub-level we might call it, provided its content has an impact on the meaning-level. This deeper-level content-plane is a level concerned with protagonist-transforming sub-text. Notice I specify that it must be more than being merely sub-text. It must have system-wide effect, as signified by its effect on the transformation of the protagonist (or the transformation of the audience’s understanding at its un-changing protagonist’s expense). Examples of films containing this additional level include:

Citizen Kane - wherein the sub-text of the metaphor of Rosebud over-arches Kane’s entire character transformation;

Casablanca – wherein the sub-text of the song, As Time Goes By, as a metaphor, serves to counterpoint Rick’s transformation;

Chinatown - wherein the sub-text of the metaphor learned in Chinatown – “do as little as possible” – over-arches Gittes’s transformation;

And, proving that they don’t have to start with “C”...

Forrest Gump - wherein the metaphor “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get” over-arches the transformation of the audience’s understanding of Forrest’s indomitable spirit, enduring all that is thrown at him without changing one iota. So while Forrest never transforms, we, in our understanding, do.

We can call this deeper level the Sub-Logical-Level, because, as it concerns transformational sub-text, it has meaning-attributes similar to those on the meaning-level. The presence of this level is evidence of, perhaps, the highest quality of writing, the finest stories, as it is using all (or most) of the available tools in a sufficiently elegant way to render its meaning in the fullest, most rewarding and enlightening manner.

I leave room for additional levels of structure, though I believe that they must, of necessity, be similarly subordinate to the Logical Level. One that comes to mind is the Image-Level, in which the imagery and/or the image system used in the story and resulting film contribute to a transformational system-wide effect (water-as-evil, for example, in Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques). Another could be its sound counterpart, the Aural-Level. This might include sound effects (the M*A*S*H film’s use of Radar and the Commanding Officer’s simultaneous line-delivery as metaphor ratifying the increasingly inescapable notion of the insanity of war; or the use of recorded sounds and their evolution from objective to subjective through the film in The Conversation), sound editing stylistics, and especially pertinent music (Psycho’s violin “screams” during the murder, for example, followed by the “breaths-taken” by the oboes, immediately afterward, and the “inquisitive” phrases during the house explorations). Still another might be the Montage-Level, in which image assembly and editing rhythms have a contributory effect to the transformation of the protagonist (e.g., any number of films that begin languidly and gradually pick up the editing pace as the tension level and the stakes rise toward the climax).

By constructing a multi-level model from which to consider structure, one is able to utilize any number of wildly variant plot or surface, physical-level approaches to structure, while retaining the necessary three-part structure of the protagonist’s transformation - or the transformation of the audience’s understanding at its un-changing protagonist’s expense - to function, as always, on the deeper logical-level. As I write in my book, Lateral Screenwriting: Using the Power of Lateral Thinking to Write Great Movies:

“Structure can wear a jumpsuit (no act/1 act), slacks and a shirt (2 act), a three-piece suit (3 act), or, like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, a free-form, layered/accessoried look (4 - 9 act and beyond), but, deep down inside, it still needs to be a single, unified, transforming story. Skeletons all look pretty much the same, after the clothes and the skin are removed, but inside the bones, the DNA tells a different story, and each skeleton is unique.”

We see the number three appear throughout and within storytelling. Stories utilize three wishes, jokes rely on three characters (e.g., a raabi, a minister, and a priest), sometimes there are three doors from which to choose. Georges Polti reduced stories to 36 recurring variations, a multiple of three. Others reduce the number to as few as (what else?) three:

“Other common narrative themes reveal our basic wants and needs. ‘Narrative involves agents pursuing some goal,’ says Patrick Colm Hogan, professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut. ‘The standard goals are partially a result of how our emotion systems are set up.’

“Hogan does not consider himself a literary Darwinist, but his research on everything from Hindu epic poems such as the Ramayana to modern film adaptations of Shakespeare supports the idea that stories reveal something about human emotions seated in the mind. As many as two thirds of the most respected stories in narrative traditions seem to be variations on three narrative patterns, or prototypes, according to Hogan. The two more common prototypes are romantic and heroic scenarios—the former focuses on the trials and travails of love, whereas the latter deals with power struggles. The third prototype, dubbed ‘sacrificial’ by Hogan, focuses on agrarian plenty versus famine as well as on societal redemption. These themes appear over and over again as humans create narrative records of their most basic needs: food, reproduction and social status.” - Scientific American magazine, September, 2008, published online, The Secrets of Storytelling: Why We Love a Good Yarn, Our love for telling tales reveals the workings of the mind, by Jeremy Hsu.

There are many reasons why the deep structure level comes in three parts, not-the-least-of-which is that it is the simplest component-grouping to fully convey reasoning. It is remarkable in its recurrence across cultures and indeed throughout the human concept of symbolic logic. In many primitive cultures, anything beyond the quantity of three was referred to as “many”. It is known as the ternary unit, a model composed of three parts. For our purposes, though, I’ll call it the Three-Component Model. It might be seen as the minimum unit to result in a conclusion of meaning. One can have a single element, yet conclude nothing definite about it, in isolation. This is, perhaps, why some native cultures, when seeing visitors for the first time, cannot describe the visitors’ ship. They literally cannot see it. They have no reference for it, so a ship has no more meaning for them than do different mountain peaks on a horizon for us.

Only by the presence of an additional conditioning element can meaning be assigned. This, conditioned by that, means thus. This was seen as early as Aristotle, not only in his well-known Poetics, but in his Prior Analytics, and his other writings on logic. Two millennia later Syd Field borrowed the Hollywood Golden-Age screenwriter notion of three-act structure to lay out his screenplay paradigm. Aristotle’s and Field’s notion of the three parts is an elegant concept with parallels in joke structure (set-up, delivery, and punch-line), the Hegelian dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis), and Aristotle’s own logic paradigm, the syllogism (major premise + minor premise = conclusion). These comparisons support and ratify the validity of our three-component model, as, in concert, they also ratify our observation that through that three-component model, this is how meaning and logic function at the deepest levels.

In the next several posts I will offer lesser-known examples of story structure that nonetheless exhibit the three-component model. I will also analyze several films (1) that have been described as proving the fallacy of three-act structure. I will show that while they may differ from the screenwriting guru notion of three acts, they exhibit classic three-component logical-level structure within their larger, multi-level whole. 


(1) In Crafty Screenwriting, and on his website, Alex Epstein calls three-act structure a “myth” and cites the following films as evidence: The Wizard of Oz, Spartacus, A Hard Day’s Night, Annie Hall, All That Jazz, Apollo 13, The Fugitive, Forrest Gump, and Wild Things.

(2) In Making A Good Script Great, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987, p. 4, Linda Seger writes: “Whether it’s a Greek tragedy, a five-act Shakespearean play, a four-act dramatic series, or a seven-act movie-of-the-week, we still see the basic three-act structure: beginning, middle, and end—or set-up, development, and resolution.”

(3) Inside Story, by Dara Marks, Three Mountain Press, 2007, throughout the book.

(4) Field’s original idea is found, for example, in the 3rd Edition of his first book on screenwriting, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, Dell, MJF Books, 1994, first on p. 13, and again on p. 123. The inference that structure is a function of the protagonist is my own, but I contend that it is so, when one reads Field’s book, by implication, not inference.



Lee A. Matthias

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