Thursday, December 10, 2009

Multi-Level Structure - Why it Matters

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.



After this post, Shane Black was interviewed in Creative Screenwriting magazine. This appeared in the 12/11/09 issue of the online newsletter, CS Weekly:

How do you generally write? Do you use outlines or notecards or just start cranking it out from page one?

I don't really use notecards. What I do is I try to figure out what the piece is about and link that to the story arc or the character arc. I always think there's two things going on in any script -- there's the story and then there's the plot. The plot is the events. If it's a heist film, it's how they get in and out. But the story is why we're there, why we're watching the events. It's what's going on with the characters. And theme above that. Once I get those things, once I know what the theme is and what it's about, I can start trying on story beats and plot beats to see if they feel like they're moving, but they have to relate to the overall theme.

If you look at The Dark Knight, you'll find before those guys wrote a word of script, they knew exactly what their movie was about. All the themes were in place. Sometimes they had to bend the scenes in The Dark Knight to fit the theme they were trying to get across. It's clear they didn't write the scenes and then look for what they were about, they clearly knew where they were headed.

Did you actually study screenwriting?

Nah. I took theater classes at UCLA. I was studying stagecraft and acting. It was a Mickey Mouse major. My finals often were painting sets, y'know? It was kind of a cakewalk though college. I liked theater, I liked movies, but I'd never seen a screenplay, and I thought they were impossibly difficult. Coming from back East, I just assumed movies were something that floated through the ether and appeared on your TV screen and some magician wrote them, but there was certainly no way I could. Then I read a script and it was so easy. I read another one and said, "I can do this. This is really rather simple." So I never took classes, I just read scripts I loved.

My style, such as it is, that sometime people comment on, is really cribbed from two sources. One is William Goldman, who has a kind of chummy, folksy storytelling style. It's almost as though a guy in a bar is talking to you from his bar stool. And then Walter Hill, who is just completely terse and sparing and has this real Spartan prose that has this wonderful effect of just gut-punching you. I took those two and I slammed them together, and that's what I use. People say it's interesting. Mostly it's a rip-off. It's Goldman meets Walter Hill.

Black, a working writer, rather than a book-trained student filled with paradigms, systems, and theories, saw the multi-level concept we identify in these posts on structure almost intuitively: "There's the story and then there's the plot." It's that simple.  

I’ve gone to great lengths in these postings on structure to identify and develop a definition of story structure that works for all stories. One that is of practical value to its users: writers and audiences.

In my view, the best way to overcome the inevitable dismissal by weary screenwriters tired of one more paradigm, was to take on the most vocal, most critical, anti-structure viewpoint and demonstrate its falsity. This I did by identifying the very 3-part structure which that view could not see. But beyond dis-proving the contrary view, there is a need to show what values multi-level structure offers.

For Physical-Level structure, I prefer using both the “Three-act Paradigm” put forth by Syd Field in his first two books, and the “Sequence Approach” (described in Paul Joseph Gulino’s book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach). I like Field’s Paradigm during the conception phase of story creation because it helps with the big picture. I like Gulino’s Sequence Approach during the draft process because it helps on the page. I maintain an open mind when it comes to which Physical-Level structure is right for a given script. Gulino’s consists of 8 sequences and allows for additional sequences for longer, epic stories such as Lawrence of Arabia, to name just one. But any surface-level structure the writer deems proper, can be substituted. Many of the others may not apply in certain cases, where Gulino’s (and even Field’s) exhibit the broadest application. 
Field breaks his story model into almost (when you include every “pinch” and the “mid-point”) the same number of parts as does the Sequence Approach, but without the various different names and without the page-level attributes the Sequence Approach provides. In fact, where Field’s Paradigm tells you why each section transits to the next, Gulino’s method tells you what the story needs to do within them. Yet Field’s Physical-Level 3-component act paradigm so closely matches the 3-component model in deeper, Logical-Level structure that I feel it is most useful in the conceptual phase, where large blocks of narrative material must relate. Gulino’s Sequence Approach also clearly operates on the physical level. So, the way to make best use of them, in tandem, is: use Field for the strategic (big picture: act level/sequence level) in stories, and Gulino (or any other, including Field’s, plot-based model again) for the tactical (scene level/page level).

Addendum: Writers will find this hybrid concept illustrated at Alexandra Sokoloff's blog in her excellent article: The Index Card Method and the Three Act, Eight Sequence Structure.

There is a hierarchical value in using Field’s approach in that it establishes relative degrees of rank for each part in relation to the story as a whole, but some of the relative value of the terms can be confusing. He says there are many “plot points” in stories, but stresses only two, Plot Point I and Plot Point II (in the case of the latter, which may well come after Plot Points III, IV, and beyond!). He uses the term, “Pinch,” but hardly establishes any solid definition for the otherwise-vague name (e.g., why is it placed at the point he puts it?). But, then, in later books, he appears to abandon the notion of the Pinch entirely.

Field’s full Paradigm (with all plot points and pinches operating) is problematic because it appears at first to be a precision instrument. However, when applied, it becomes clear that it is sufficiently vague to maintain a one-size-fits-all application. This is because, unbeknownst to Field, it is operating simultaneously on both the surface, physical level, and the deeper, logical level. In order to succeed at one - logical - it may, sometimes, fail at the other - physical. Going for precision by using concepts like additional “plot points” and various “pinches” is a fool’s game. If a writer has gotten a story conceived and developed sufficiently to meet Field’s major (Logical-Level) structural sign-posts, it’s reasonable to leave the rest (Physical-Level structure) in the writer’s (and Paul Joseph Gulino’s or Christopher Vogler’s or John Truby’s or David Siegel’s, et al) hands, anyway.

So it’s better, at the writing stage, to just locate each portion of the script in relation to the others by the use of Gulino’s Sequence’s letter-designation. Field started with just a 3-part model, then added the mid-point, and then added pinches to that, with successive books. The reason for this evolution of his paradigm was most likely that he was struggling the same as was Epstein. Both of them appear to have wrestled with the fact that there was a 3-part structure present in stories with greater or lesser so-called acts. Their conclusion, then, was that there must be some better way to modify the 3-part paradigm, or, in Epstein’s case, to discard it altogether.

What neither of them understood was that they were not describing a flat, single-level model! Instead, they were confronted with, at minimum, 2 levels, and at times, 3 or more (see my first and second posts on structure). It’s like the story of the blind men and the elephant. Only, in this case they manage to touch only the elephant’s legs and so they conclude they’ve found a forest because “It’s tree trunks!” But then the tree moves (they see additional acts), so they know it’s something else. But what? In Field’s case, this was by modifying or adding subordinate parts. In Epstein’s case, it was by abandoning them entirely and choosing a kind of creative anarchy over any deeper understanding.

This struggle is at the heart of why, beyond the profit bandwagon, there are so many screenwriting books out there! Nobody could get a handle on structure. The moment someone found a model that seemed, at first, to describe all stories, someone else found a story that didn’t fit. But the reality is, the moment one separates the story into the Physical and the Logical such problems vanish.

But then, to recall Epstein’s grand final questions, “Who cares?” and “How [does it] help?” we get to the crux of the matter.

These questions are Epstein’s (and many other’s) misunderstanding, crystallized. It is true, if story structure were so broadly variable that it included no act, 9+ act, and everything in between, and there were no consistent, recurring features across the whole, then it would be essentially worthless.

The term, “structure” refers to support. If any support does the job, then, indeed, “who cares?” So such support must be applicable broadly to be of any use in new applications as they appear. Only a multi-level view does this.

So, we confront, at last, Alex Epstein’s final questions:

“Who cares?
“Suppose you could decide where the third act begins. How would that help you understand how the story works?
If structure was just a description of event-assembly, knowing where the third act begins is merely organizational process, writer bean-counting, and of little or no real value. But structure is about event-assembly in relation to meaning-assembly. And if writers’ stories are intended to have meaning, structure is the difference between a car that runs and a pile of broken and disconnected parts. If you reduce Epstein’s notion of 3-act structure to sentences, they might look like this:

cares?” Who
decide help the works?” understand could you act begins “Suppose. would that How help the you where
Sound and fury; fury and sound, but signifying nothing.

What Epstein is really asking is: “What good to writers is an understanding of structure?”

Good question. Here’s my answer:

The multi-level view helps writers to better understand and tell their stories. Stories with sound structure offer audiences higher-value. If, as I contend, structure resides on at least two levels, the Physical and the Logical, and if the deeper, Logical Level is consistent, from film to film (i.e., one can see the protagonist’s Arc-of-Transformation) as I contend it is, then 3-part, Logical-Level structure has value! This is because it can be used as a tool by writers to evaluate their ideas’ very suitability as stories. It can reveal if the story is inherently transformative. Next, it can be used to understand how best to tell their stories. It can imply the form the Physical Level should take: 3-act, or any other. Third, through it, by staying focused and centered, pinned to the Arc-of-Transformation, writers can better, more effectively, write stories. It can help them avoid the extraneous, the irrelevant, and the excess. And, finally, fourth, audiences, through multi-level structure, will experience the finest stories, ones that entertain through their surface-level plots, while enlightening through their deeper-level meaning.
So, as I stated in my first posting on structure: both surface, Physical-Level structure, and deeper, Logical-Level structure are useful. One helps writers find a way to tell the story, and the other helps writers find a way to tell its truths.

The next two posts will present analyses of Pulp Fiction and Memento. #


Lee A. Matthias

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