Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Three Less Orthodox Story Structures

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.


In the previous post, I identified the reality that story structure operates on multiple levels: 

  • A surface, or plot level I call the Physical Level, upon which sequences and scenes are ordered or assembled;
  • A deeper, interior, or meaning level I call the Logical Level, where protagonist-transformation (or what its unchanging nature) means, operates;
  • And, sometimes, a middle level, between the surface and interior levels I call the Sub-Logical Level, where protagonist-transforming sub-text may operate.
After providing several examples of films employing the Sub-Logical Level, I observed that such films are likely to be of the highest quality of narratives. I also identified several subordinate levels which can impact multi-level structure:

  • The Image Level, where imagery and/or an image-system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates;
  • The Aural Level, where sound, music, and/or a sound-effects system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates;
  • The Montage Level, where image-assembly and/or an image-editing system having a transformative effect on the protagonist operates.
I recognized that many films have an un-changing protagonist, and pointed out that, in such cases, the transformation is still present within the audience at the un-changing protagonist’s expense. Finally, I pointed out the nature of the number three and its function in the way meaning, and therefore, narrative deep-structure operates.

It should be recognized that the above subordinate levels are not necessarily representative of the entirety of subordinate-level structure. I can see the possibility of still others such as:

  • A Performance Level, where the actors’ performances, as opposed to the writing, itself (e.g., Al Pacino in the Godfather films, where his acting transforms from optimistic kid to sober killer shouldering the weight of his world), having a protagonist-transforming effect operate;
  • An Environmental Level, where the production-design having a protagonist-transforming effect operates (e.g., Alien, where the design goes from bright, high-tech to dark, industrial);
  • A Presentation Level, where the directorial-choices that can be identified as having a protagonist-transforming effect operate (e.g., Citizen Kane, where the directorial choices successively portray Kane as self-oppressed).
In this post I will examine three physical-level structural approaches that have received “short-shrift” in many published discussions on structure. This is intended to establish the wide-variance of physical-level structural approaches. These include:

1)  The Sonata Musical Form

2)  Five-Act Structure

3)  Nine-Act Structure with Two Goals and a Reversal 

Note - I prefer to confine my use of the term, “act” to the surface level, and use the term, “part” on deeper levels.

Here are three structures that often escape theorists:

The Structure of the Sonata Musical Form

This approach to structure is sometimes also called the Sonata-Allegro form. Some observers describe the films of Stanley Kubrick as employing the Sonata musical form as a model for their construction. Kubrick, himself, has said:

“A film is - or should be - more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what's behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later. After you've walked out of the theatre, maybe the next day or a week later, maybe without ever actually realizing it, you somehow get what the filmmaker has been trying to tell you.”

Scott Myers, at his blog, Go Into The Story, did a post on the sonata musical form and its resemblance to the three act structure of many screenplays. He pointed out:

“There are striking similarities, if you think of:

“Melodies as Characters

“Transitions from one key to the next as major plot points

“Exposition-Development-Recapitulation as Act I-Act II-Act III.”

“Music is another means of storytelling, and the fact that master composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and many more used sonata form, that it ruled orchestral music for 150 years, that pieces based upon sonata form are still performed and enjoyed by millions to this day is yet another example of why structural theories about screenplays work – because they reflect a three act/movement pattern which seems to underlie the basics of all stories, all forms of storytelling, all manner of story-crafting.” 

A sonata is an extended composition, differing from vocal composition in that it’s usually for piano or another solo instrument. It comes in - what else? - three parts or movements: The Allegro, Adagio, and Rondo. They differ in tempo, tone and melody but are usually held together by the same motif (similar to a visual motif in film: the X`s in Ben Hecht`s script for Scarface (1932), the flawed eyes in Robert Towne’s script for Chinatown, etc...).

Allegro is usually fast, bright, cheery, up in tone and melody. Adagio is slower, more leisurely. The last part, Rondo, restates the other themes along with its own new theme (an echo of the main motif) at least three times, sometimes more. Handled properly, it all builds to a complete climax, and it is sometimes even followed by a Coda, a formal tying-up.

The simplest way I`ve heard the sonata form described is first the Allegro makes a statement of exposition, the Adagio develops it more deeply, the Rondo recapitulates it, and finally, sometimes, the Coda closes it.

An example from recent modern American music is by Wynton Marsalis on his Blue Interlude (1992), particularly the title track. I believe this was originally written to be accompanied by a dance troupe. A second example is Marsalis’s Jubilee Suite (year unknown).

CLASSIC SONATA-ALLEGRO FORM in Screenplay Structure:

Sonata-Allegro form mirrors 3-act structure as follows. There are many exceptions, but this is the general classical form (a la Mozart). Consider these movements in relation to such Kubrick films as: Paths of Glory, Lolita, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Adagio (Exposition/Act I):
Themes/characters introduced; stable harmonies/events.

  • Allegro (Development/Act II):
Themes comingled, reinvented, and restated through a variety of techniques; harmonies unstable with a tendency toward modulation; ends with a promise to the listener/viewer for a...

  • Rondo (Recapitulation/Act III):
A return ‘home’ to stability and a satisfying conclusion.

  • Coda (Epilogue; optional):

    A new, yet related, theme/idea tagged on the end.
Kubrick’s use of the Sonata form is more-often-than-not a less-bright, less-cheery approach. However, by sometimes offering a decidedly grim conclusion and/or Coda, it does encompass the emotional range of the form.

Five-Act Structure

Surface-level, physical structure comes in many flavors. William Shakespeare favored a 5-act assemblage. But he wasn’t alone. It’s been used in films many times. Let’s take a look.

In the 4th edition of their (otherwise) excellent book, Alternative Scriptwriting, p. 307, authors Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, describe the structural sign-posts of Four Weddings and a Funeral (with The Last Reveal’s italics for later reference):

“A number of writers have experimented successfully with structure. The most commercially successful experiment is Richard Curtis’s Four Weddings and a Funeral [1994]. An argument can be made that this film actually follows three-act form—boy meets girl, boy doesn’t want girl, boy finally decides he really does want girl. But we would like to suggest that, on another narrative level, Curtis does organize the entire story around a series of special events—weddings, proposed weddings, and a funeral. By doing so, he has contextualized the personal issue (commitment to a relationship) into a social context—that is, the weddings and the funeral...” And later, “The challenge to storytelling conventions of structure comes from the theatrical device of organizing the entire story around five social events. Superficially, the implication is five acts, but actually, the film neatly divides into three acts, with the turning points just after the two characters have slept together for the first time: the female lead, Carrie (Andie McDowell), poses the issue of commitment, and Charles rejects it. The next turning point occurs after Carrie’s marriage: Charles confesses his love for her, but now she is married and the possibility of a relationship has never seemed more distant. The dissonance between the formal structure of the film (five acts) and the dramatic structure (three acts) makes the film seem novel and inventive.

Dancyger and Rush get it, and, yet... they don’t! As can be seen by my italicized passages, they can see what we, here, call the physical and logical levels. They can even dichotomize them, naming them “formal” and “dramatic,” respectively. But they reject the legitimacy of the multi-level concept by dismissing the physical level (their “formal” level) as “superficial.” Instead they seem to over-intellectualize the dichotomy by pronouncing it as “contextualized” and “dissonant”, and therefore, “more powerful,” whatever that all means. As can be seen in my analysis of All That Jazz (below), not to mention, the works of William Shakespeare, organizing a story around five physical-level structural components is hardly groundbreaking or, as Dancyger and Rush pronounce it, “experimental.”

The way to get to the heart of any story’s structure is to ask oneself whose story it is. The answer to that question will point to the protagonist, be it a he (e.g., Forrest Gump – Forrest Gump), a she (Norma Rae – Norma Rae), a couple (Annie & Alvy – Annie Hall), a group (The Big Chill’s group), a town (Grover’s Corners – Our Town), a metaphor (America’s coming of age – Nashville), or even an idea (nuclear annihilation – Dr. Strangelove).

So let’s examine another 5-act film, one identified as evidence of the “myth” of 3-act structure:

All That Jazz

Q - Whose story is it?
A – Joe Gideon’s (his death in 5 acts).

The film states its physical, surface-structure in the first 12 minutes (via Joe Gideon’s movie-within-the-movie’s standup comic) in a monologue: there are 5 stages of death: anger, denial, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Death is present throughout the film, connecting the stages, in the form of an ongoing dialogue between Joe and Death in the form of (what else?) a beautiful woman. (At least there weren’t three of them.)
The film’s Physical-Level structure can be charted in those 5 acts:

(My use of italics identifies pivotal story sign-posts)

Anger Stage – (1” to 38”) – Joe Gideon, director, in his life: living cynically; sleeping around despite loving his ex-wife, his daughter, and his mistress; preparing a show, but unhappy with it, despite its excellence; editing his movie, The Standup.

Denial Stage – (38” to 57”) – Has a mild heart attack, but shrugs it off. Business as usual: rehearses; works on show, making it brilliant, but summing himself and show business up (“we take you everywhere, but get you nowhere”). He eventually abandons his “cut” of his movie with the monologue about death stages, even though he has improved it (because it is too accurate about his own life).

Bargaining Stage – (57” to 65”) – Joe and his life “bargain,” showing him that he has love, his work is great, but even in the face of it, during the reading with everyone in stitches, he can’t hear them, and he can’t accept it.

Depression Stage – (65” to 101”) – Joe has a heart “episode,” angina, and is admitted for surgery. Joe in hospital. The show goes on hiatus. The producers interview a new director. Gideon shows glimmers of health. The Standup is a hit, but has a bad review, and that’s all Joe can see. Joe tells Katie he loves her, but if he survives, will hurt her again. Surgery. The show is financially autopsied: if Joe dies, it will reach profit because of insurance and the fact that the hiatus hit before major set expenditures. Four songs, back-to-back, showing Joe what he stands to lose, one from each woman in his life, including “show business” itself. He survives surgery, and it looks like he’ll return to the show.

Acceptance Stage – (101” to 120”) – Set-back: he has an actual heart attack. A re-statement of the 5 stages as Joe accepts his coming death, tears off the hospital gear connected to him, escapes his room, and wanders through the hospital back-areas and basement. Each stage is summarized in Joe’s behavior, culminating in his kissing the dying old woman, one last flirtation as he bows out. Joe’s death is signified by the song “Bye Bye Love” (substituting “Life” for “Love”), at the end of which Joe moves forward to meet his death, the beautiful woman in white.

The film’s Logical-Level structure can be charted in 3 parts (or, as the Fieldians might see it, no levels, 3 acts):

Part 1 – (1” to 33”) Joe Gideon, director, loves but strays from the women in his life, culminating, at 33”, in the admission that he cannot re-marry because his behavior would hurt one more person in his life, and for him, that would be the final straw, no less than a kind of death.

Part 2 – (33” to 65” to 101”) Joe lives his life, loving and hurting both those around him and also himself; at the mid-point, 65” into the story, he sees what’s in store for him, heart failure, both figuratively and literally. He has surgery and almost comes back from it, but resumes his bad ways. Ultimately, at 101” into the story, he has a set-back while still in the hospital; he knows he’s gonna die.

Part 3 – (101” to 120”) Joe symbolically re-examines his journey toward death through an unauthorized “journey” through the back areas of the hospital, at the end of which Joe dies, embodied in a big song and dance number as he says goodbye. The film ends at 120” of story time.

All That Jazz exhibits text-book multi-level story structure; it also exhibits classic dramatic structure: both physically using the 5-act framework used by dramatists such as William Shakespeare, and logically, using the 3-part meaning structure of classic narrative storytelling (with a breakdown of 27/57/16%). In fact, its multi-level structure bursts brilliantly into view as soon as the question of whose story the film is becomes answered. 

So, if there’s one insight to be gained from this discussion of structure, it is that to find the structure in a story, first ask whose story it is. It can be a person, a couple, a group, a town, a metaphor, or even just an idea. This entity is the structure’s protagonist, and its transformation (or non-transformation in spite of the need for it), is the 3-part deep structure, the Logical structure, of the narrative.

David Siegel’s Nine-Act Structure With Two Goals and a Reversal

Here we come to the moment where, if it hasn’t become so long ago, it is quite clear that the narrative physical pie is merely being divided into an ever-greater number of pieces. But, as with my example of human skeletons being of the species, homo sapiens, it’s still the same species of pie (in this case, fabula plures campester, or story of many levels). David Siegel’s approach, like that of Christopher Vogler’s based on the work of mythologist, Joseph Campbell (or any of the other surface-level structures), does not work for all narrative stories, just some. Still, it offers insights that are useful for writers.

(Siegel appears to have removed his approach from the web – it had been there for many years – so we must use a third-party interpretation of it.)

To illustrate my point about pies, I have inserted Syd Field’s and other’s story sign-posts in our standard Courier New Font.

(My thanks to Gerri Baker’s website review of Siegel’s approach)

“In "Anatomy of a Screenplay," the basics of story come out in the form of three P's: Plot, the action; Premise, the concept; and People, the characters. Siegel suggests that a good balance between these three things will make stories fuller, while separating them as much as possible will simplify the story and allow easier manipulating of each component.

“Siegel explains one more key concept before diving into the meat of his idea: the "Two Goal Structure." While many stories are set up with one goal in mind, linked linearly from beginning to end, he points out that this set-up rarely makes the story large enough to become popular. The Two-Goal Structure, he claims, is more exciting because of the reversal in the plot. In the beginning of a story, the characters aim for a major goal, but by the middle or towards the end of the story, they realize they've got the wrong goal. Suddenly, the characters are forced to change what they're doing in order to go in this new, more accurate direction. This idea is the heart of the Nine Act Structure.

“The body of Siegel's theory is in the nine acts that make up a story.

“Act Zero does not directly appear in the story except in flashback and explanations to show backstory. Here, writers need to set up the disaster that is coming in the story. Forces need to already be in motion before the story begins in order to create conflict for the characters. Usually the emphasis for the backstory will be on the antagonist or villain, but even protagonists carry baggage into the story. He even goes as far as to suggest ten years of planning coming into a collision course in the story.

“Act One is used to establish the physical location and time period of the story. This particular act is peculiar to script writing, although other writers should be aware of the need for a powerful beginning to any story.”

Inciting Incident:

“Act Two is an immediate hook into the story. Something bad has to happen, and happen fast, in order to move things from act zero into the main story. The conflict starts, and the rest of the story follows.

“Act Three introduces the cast of characters, including the protagonist and his or her cadre, as well as establishing the villain and his or her allies and flunkies. Character development during Act Three is critical for connecting with the audience. While the development happens, events propel the characters towards the next act.”

Plot Point 1

Fieldian Act 1/Act 2 Transition:

“Act Four involves the protagonist committing to the first goal. He may go willingly into the situation because the alternative is worse, or to help an apparent victim. Under involuntary conditions, someone may push the protagonist into the situation, either for malicious reasons or for the character's own good.”

Fieldian Mid-Point:

“Act Five finds the protagonist pursuing the wrong goal. This act, the longest of the group, is where the complications of the plot pile up. Backstory issues, mysterious strangers, and events; all point out that the protagonist is on the wrong track, and the villain is winning. This act ends when the protagonist realizes he is going after the wrong goal, usually at the villain's peak in the story.”

Plot Point 2

“Act Six is the pivotal point when characters will go after the new, accurate goal. The characters get that final clue, the missing piece to the puzzle, which allows them to make the necessary changes to successfully complete the plotline.

Fieldian Act 2/Act 3 Transition:

“Act Seven doesn't go well even though the new goal is the correct one. While the protagonist will usually win out over the villain by the end of this act, the victory comes at a price. Nothing is free.”


“Act Eight wraps everything up, ties up loose ends, and sends audience members on their way with the emotions the writer wants them to feel. This act is short, sweet, and to the point.

With some work and a little flexibility, the Two Goal and the Nine Act structures can translate from film into the print medium, making a novel plot tighter and more energetic. The pacing he recommends for each act will have to be modified for novel writing. Also, prose allows for more intermingling of acts than Siegel uses.”

From my book, Lateral Screenwriting, and its section on narrative story structure:

“For all of this, an awareness of structure is good only to writers. As long as it works, audiences don’t care. To be sure, audiences would rather not know the structure of a beloved story, because it takes away the magic created by the piece and kills it. So, structure is for writers. It is useful, for story conception, for writing-efficiency, and later as the story is written, for story-unity and story-focus.

“For audiences, then, it is valuable to the extent it works to yield its magical results. It is important not just to help writers work their way through huge blocks of narrative plot-line as the screenwriting priesthood’s surfacists (sure-fascists?) are content to believe. It is valuable because it explains its subject to its creators.

“And, thanks to such functioning on the deeper level of meaning, it helps audiences in understanding their own lives. So, surface, physical-level structure, and deeper, sub-logical-level and logical-level structures, are useful. One helps writers find a way to tell the story, and the others help writers find a way to tell the truth.”

In the next few posts, I will take several examples of films listed by Alex Epstein as demonstrating the “myth” of three-act structure, and show them to have a multi-level structure with the three parts present, nonetheless, in the deeper, logical level.

In a following post, I will analyze two popular films, Pulp Fiction and Memento, whose structure appears decidedly unorthodox, and show them to be, in fact, cases of classic Fieldian three-act surface-level physical structure, with classic three-part deep-level logical structure, as always, beneath.#


Lee A. Matthias

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