Monday, December 7, 2009

The Myth of... "The Myth of Three-Act Structure" - Part 3

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.


There are hundreds of books on screenwriting that have appeared since Syd Field published his first book somewhere around thirty years ago. Prior to Field there were only a handful going all the way back to the birth of the movies. While not calling it by the name used here, only one or two of these writers have recognized what I call multi-level structure. Even then, they have not really appreciated its importance to the process of how writers conceive and develop their stories.

I can understand why well-intentioned writers like Syd Field and Alex Epstein have not recognized multi-level structure, despite it “staring” them and others “in the face.” It is a confusion of the identity and importance of the protagonist. Most writers on screenwriting have never considered stories using a consistent set of tools and a consistent evaluative method. Rather, they apply one approach for Beverly Hills Ninja, and another for Citizen Kane, all in the service of the idea that two so different stories must require two different approaches. They see three acts, then five, then modify their theories, or “throw up their hands,” unable to reconcile the difference.
However, if:

  • One starts from the position that a story is not simply a series of inter-related events, but instead is also the transformation of a protagonist (or, as I’ve said, the failure of same despite the need for it);
  • That its meaning is articulated by the three-component model, the arc-of-transformation;
  • And that its plot is articulated by almost any assemblage of narrative events conceivable;
Then one is empowered to apply this method to any narrative tale (or idea of narrative tale). In the process the tale’s structure will emerge in bold relief, where before, as exemplified in our analyses of A Hard Day’s Night and Annie Hall, to Epstein and others, it seemed hidden or even mere myth.

But the test of any model is whether it is applicable in every (or virtually every) case. I’ve pointed out examples where it does not apply. But they and their cousins are less than .0001% of all commercially-released narrative films since the arrival of sound. For writers, audiences, and statisticians, that means they’re irrelevant. And that, in turn, means that the multi-level model applies to the rest.

But, by all means, let us test! That is the reason why I have taken all of Epstein’s example films (and will throw in two more of my own choosing) and demonstrated (or will) the reality of their multi-level structures, and the falsity of his charge that they show 3-act structure to be a myth. Six of the eight films he lists do, indeed, have 3-act structure. The remaining two do not, though they all exhibit 3-part structure on the deeper logical or meaning-level. A dyed-in-the-wool Fieldian would contend that this deeper-level, 3-part structure, in fact, is their 3-act structure. So, in that view, all eight of Epstein’s listed films in fact disprove his charge.

Why do this? The reason is not to disprove Epstein. It is to prove and de-mystify multi-level story structure. It is to benefit writers who are trying to make sense of their ideas. It’s to benefit audiences who are looking for good stories. And it’s to dispel all of the academic and professional confusion on the subject. What follows are my structural analyses of two films that ought to seal the deal. Between them they demonstrate the breadth of variability found in surface-level structure. One is classic 3-act/3-part multi-level structure, but with an unchanging protagonist. The other is atypical 7-act/3-part multi-level structure, also with an unchanging protagonist. When considered amongst Epstein’s entire list, one sees that we have a broad cross section of narrative types that demonstrate how variable structure can be. And the multi-level model has no difficulty with any of them. 

Forrest Gump

Q - Whose story is it?

A – At first, it appears that the story is Forrest’s in the conventional sense of the changing protagonist. However, he doesn’t materially change through the story. This, like Death Of A Salesman, is one of those cases where the audience changes in its understanding because of Forrest’s indomitable spirit in the face of the turmoil around him.

A way to articulate this is to see Forrest as a metaphor for the country, a kind of embodiment of the American spirit. Like it, Forrest endures through war and social change, and we, the audience, transform from a kind of innocence, through the trials of change, and to an enlightened wisdom. But the essential and salient points are still there in the film to signal the changes.
So, while it is Forrest Gump’s story, the change is in us, our understanding.

The Physical and Logical structures each are in 3 identical and corresponding parts:

Part 1 – This portion comprises Forrest’s youth through his arrival in Vietnam. We see Forrest’s remarkable good fortune, beginning with being able to “throw off his shackles” and run faster than his pursuers, an ability that gets him into college and beyond, despite his problems, signals that Forrest serves as a metaphor. This miraculous act is a detail that signals us that Forrest is a metaphor rather than a real person. When he loses Bubba in Vietnam, he gains a purpose: to carry on Bubba’s ambition to own and operate the shrimping boat. Bubba’s death is the event that thrusts Forrest into Part 2 and his adulthood.

Part 2 – This portion comprises Forrest’s entry into and progress through adulthood. Forrest’s success with international ping pong and how product endorsements enable him to start the shrimping business with Lt. Dan, put him into position for the trials he must face. These include his contention with such challenges and obstacles as Lt. Dan’s depression, Forrest’s mother’s death, and Jenny’s continuing struggles with life. Thanks to the sheer luck and inexperience of being out during a hurricane that spares them but destroys all the other shrimp boats docked back in port, Forrest and Lt. Dan corner the shrimp market. The notion of Forrest-as-metaphor is reinforced when he decides to run across America over several years, crossing and re-crossing the continent, “from sea to shining sea,” in effect, he is America. This culminates with Jenny’s re-appearance in Forrest’s life and her acceptance of his love, followed by her abruptly leaving him, once again. Thanks to the rise of technology and Lt. Dan’s foresight, and thanks to Lt. Dan’s investing, Forrest and he get in on the ground floor of the computer industry. When Jenny finally writes Forrest and asks him to visit, Forrest races to see her and finds out he’s a father, the event that sends Forrest into the final portion of the story.

Part 3 – This portion, then, follows Forrest as he adjusts to learning he’s a father. Following this news, Jenny lets him know she has an illness, and asks him to marry her. They marry, with Lt. Dan in attendance. Forrest assumes fatherhood and tends to Jenny as she declines in health. When she is gone, Forrest takes over as sole parent, and faces the future with his son with a kind of serenity, somehow in tune with the changes he’s seen in his extraordinary life.

Forrest Gump is a story of America, enduring through trial. It is embodied in one young man who, like the American people, moves blithely through it. And, as are we while living it, he is unaware of it in any larger context. The story’s transformation is external to him, internal to us: He goes from innocence to a kind of victim/witness of political and social forces greater than himself; emerges from that only to grapple with personal change, success, and their costs; finally to accept the responsibility of caring for someone other than himself, and, as always, facing an uncertain future. Only through our own hindsight are we able to appreciate the impact of the forces acting upon and around him. And only in that way are we able to recognize the profound qualities this country itself embodies, as embodied by the character of Forrest Gump.

Wild Things

Q - Whose story is it?

A – It’s Suzie Toller’s story (her manipulation of a criminal conspiracy in 7 acts).

The Physical structure is in 7-acts; the Logical structure is in 3-parts.

Wild Things (1998) is a movie of twists and reversals. Every time you think you know what is going on, a new revelation shows you that you are wrong. Many people praise this film, based on checks on the web. Unlike Epstein, I don’t think this is a “superbly written” script. Why? Because there are so many twists in such short order that I (and I venture others) stopped caring what happened, knowing, eventually, that after a few more minutes, it would all change again anyway.

It is simply too “cute” for its own good. It is trying to out-Chinatown, Chinatown, out-Body Heat, Body Heat. And, because of the failure of the filmmakers to develop them, the characters end up amounting to no more than chess pieces being moved on the film’s board.

So, while it has surprises, it has no sympathetic protagonist because it eliminates them all through each successive reversal. I was waiting, as Suzie sailed away at the end, for the Bill Murray character to be revealed as the lover of Suzie, or maybe that he and opponent lawyer, Robert Wagner, were gay lovers who kill Suzie from a 2-man submarine as she tries to sail away at the end, leaving them with the money, only to... You get the idea: we could keep this going until there were literally no characters left to be revealed. (And William Martell could write that last variant and then talk about on his blog, Sex in a Submarine)

The Physical structure consists of 7 parts:
Part 1 – (1” to 16”) The players are all introduced except our “heroine,” Suzie Toller (Neve Campbell) in an opening scene at the high school auditorium where Sam Lombardo is a Guidance Counselor (right, Matt Dillon as a school counselor, with a name right out of a Guy Noir monologue) introducing Police Sgt. Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon), to – and I am not making this up – talk to the students about sex crimes. (I don’t know about your kids’ high school, but mine stayed with safe  sex speakers).

Student, Kelly Van Ryan (Denise Richards), is in the student audience (right, I believe she went to high school – in the ‘80s! Perhaps she’s just a metaphor - for the student body). Even this opening scene, it seems in hindsight, is too “trumped up” to be believable, but they have to get everyone registered in order to get the conspiracy going. Kelly manipulates Sam into letting her come over, ostensibly to wash his car for a school fund raiser (in truth, so we can see her get her t-shirt wet). She wheedles her way into his house, later leaves, and then tells her rich mother that Sam raped her. This happens at the 16 minute point in story time.

Part 2 – (16” to 34”) The accusation gets around, the police are brought in, and Duquette is told to bring his boss “a case.” Sam hires a lawyer, Ken Bowden (Bill Murray), loses his current girlfriend, the daughter of Kelly’s family’s lawyer, Tom Baxter (Robert Wagner), and is attacked on the road at night by Kelly’s mother’s pool boy (you gotta think that all “pool boy” job descriptions include both killer and gigolo). Duquette visits Suzie, a low-life (is there any other kind?) friend of rich-girl Kelly’s as part of his investigation, whereupon she says Sam raped her, too, and uses the same detail Duquette heard from Kelly, that there is no physical evidence establishing the rape, a deliberate action supposedly by Sam who explains it to the “victim” with similar language in each rape. This is at the 34 minute point in story time.

Part 3 – (34” to 50”) The case proceeds to court where after some proceedings, Lombardo’s lawyer, Bowden breaks Suzie on the stand and she admits she lied and says Kelly lied, too. The case is thrown out. The parties meet at Sam’s lawyer’s office and settle for $8 million to avoid a lawsuit. But Sam is tainted, so he has to quit his job at the school and leave town. Then the crime is revealed as being a conspiracy engineered by Sam with the two girls to get the mother’s money. It appears Sam and the girls will run off together. (And I’m believing it because I want to see Sam and the girls “live” happily ever after. Right.) This is at the 50 minute point in story time.

Part 4 – (50” to 69”) Duquette then is shown to have figured out that Lombardo and the two girls, Kelly and Suzie, are in cahoots, and the whole thing was a job to fleece the money out of Kelly’s mother. Duquette has no evidence, so he begins to watch the girls, believing they are the weak link that will give away the crime. He goes to Kelly and tells her he knows and that she should watch out because three’s a crowd. Then he does the same thing with Suzie, but suggests that Sam and Kelly will dump her. Suzie then races to Kelly to confront her about this, followed by Duquette, who videotapes their meeting at Kelly’s pool. The girls have a fight, but then make up and make love. (why? ‘cause it’s in the guy’s script, stupid!) Duquette and Lombardo have a meeting at headquarters where they have an argument and Sam threatens Duquette. That night, Lombardo meets Kelly and Suzie, and after she is drunk, Lombardo kills Suzie off-screen while Kelly is at the car. Together, Kelly and Lombardo bag the body and dispose of it. This is at the 69 minute point in story time.

Part 5 – (69” to 81”) Duquette finds the murder scene after getting a tip from Suzie’s mother about her hired hand finding teeth embedded in a boat. Duquette’s partner Det. Gloria Perez (Daphne Rubin-Vega) stakes out Lombardo and then is discovered. He then tells her that Kelly killed Suzie and provides support to make it a real possibility. Duquette goes to Kelly at her house and, in a confrontation, she shoots at him, not mortally. He puts two bullets into her in “defense,” killing her. This is at the 81 minute point in story time.

Part 6 – (81” to 90”) Duquette is summarily fired from the police force. Then he is revealed as in cahoots with Lombardo. They go sailing while they must wait to get access to the money. Out on the open sea, Lombardo engineers it so that Duquette is thrown off the boat. But Duquette manages to hold a line and pulls himself back aboard, whereupon, as he is about to go after Sam, Duquette is shot and killed by a spear gun wielded by Suzie, somehow alive again, but now as a blond. This is at the 90 minute point in story time.

Part 7 – (90” to 96”) So Sam and Suzie engineered it all. Since they are out in open water on Sam’s sailboat, we can’t believe little non-sailor Suzie would try to kill Sam, too. Or can we? As they drink a toast to their good fortune we see that Sam’s drink was spiked with poison by Suzie. Sam dies, and Suzie is left with sole remaining access to the money. In a coda it is revealed that Suzie has a 200 I.Q., so could easily have engineered the whole thing as well as taught herself how to operate a sailboat and navigate back to shore (and, of course, she was smart enough to know she could trust all the other morons in on it to do their jobs perfectly, too). The film’s story ends at the 96” point in story time.

The Logical structure is in 3 parts:

Part 1 – (1” to 34”) A criminal conspiracy is shown in which a girl, Kelly Van Ryan, accuses a guidance counselor, Sam Lombardo, at their school of rape. As the story develops, a second girl, Suzie Toller, also accuses him. Suzie, then, emerges out of the shadows as a co-conspirator, it seems. This is at the 34 minute point in story time.

Part 2 – (34” to 71”) The police, in the form of detective Duquette and his partner, investigate the accusations. There is commonality to the two girls’ stories. A trial begins whereupon Sam Lombardo’s lawyer breaks Suzie on the stand, and the accusations are established as lies. The trial is thrown out. To avoid a lawsuit, Kelly’s mother pays off Sam. But Sam is tainted and must quit his job and leave town. Then the conspiracy is revealed: Sam and the girls are in cahoots to take Kelly’s mother for the settlement money. This is the Mid-Point, 50 minutes into the story.

Police detective, Duquette, has figured it out, however. But he has no proof. So he starts to watch them. He begins to play one girl against the other to see if they will expose the conspiracy by running to Sam who now lives temporarily in a motel. The girls fight, but then make love, confirming their collusion to Duquette. But it’s not enough. Lombardo and Duquette have a confrontation setting up animosity between them. Then Lombardo goes to see the girls and seems to kill Suzie while Kelly is at the car. We see them prepare the body for disposal. In truth, however, unknown even to Kelly, the un-harmed Suzie has now gone into hiding. This is at the 71 minute point in story time.

Part 3 – (71” to 96”) Duquette, investigating, finds the murder scene. Lombardo tells him Kelly did it. Duquette goes to Kelly and they argue whereupon she shoots him. He kills her in defense. He turns out to be okay. Duquette is fired from the police force. Then it is revealed that he is partnered with Lombardo, and they were in it together all along. Having to wait to get to the money, they go out sailing on Lombardo’s boat. Sam tries to kill Duquette, but fails, and just as Duquette is coming after him, Duquette is killed by Suzie, now revealed to be alive after all. As they sail off, Sam drinks a mickey prepared by Suzie, dies, and she is left with sole access to the money. The film ends at the 96 minute point in story time.

The breakdown is proportioned at 35/39/26%, almost in thirds.

We are left with a protagonist who has not changed through the entire film. She has manipulated every event. The only transformation is within the audience, from naïve innocence to unsettled illumination.

Wild Things is a classic case of one of those deeply incestuous and derivative Hollywood films that is trying way too hard to be cute, to be clever. No one in this movie was sympathetic for long. Beyond the fact that it was trying too hard, more than once it had scenes between various co-conspirators that would likely not have happened the way they did because the only people present who needed to be fooled were the audience. So the characters wouldn’t have spoken to one another or done some of the things as they did. That is, unless each one, in turn only knew so much. But that begs the question as to why any of them would believe that the treachery stopped at them. The character relationships had so little development beyond the profit and the sexual, that no reasons for such trust were ever established. The film was preposterous, as contrived as they come, the kind of story only bored filmmaker wannabes and people who don’t think too hard love.

And this, in turn, demonstrates the difficulty in doing a convincing 7+ -act story full of twists and reversals in 96 minutes. Producers, directors, and studios are so obsessed with keeping it moving that the very substance that might have made it worthy of moving is either stripped away or never conceived of to begin with. With modest adjustments and development, the essential plot could have been made to work, that is if we liked, believed, and cared about at least some of the characters. But, instead, they “got ‘er done” at 96 minutes, “on budget” and “un’er a hunert” so “the Money was happy!” Who needs the rest of us?

In the next post I will take on the big questions Epstein poses: Why does it matter? Who cares? In later posts, I will conclude my “take” on structure by deeper analyses of Pulp Fiction and Memento. #


Lee A. Matthias 

No comments:

Post a Comment