Thursday, January 7, 2010

What's The Story?

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.


What’s the story?

No. Who’s the story!

I dunno…

Third Base!

Recently I spent eight posts (starting here) describing and testing a view of story structure that can be of use to writers in conceiving and writing good movies. Let this serve as a last word, the ninth post on the subject.

First, let me clarify that the multi-level view of structure considers the definition of the protagonist in any story to be wide enough to include a person, a group, a community, a culture, a metaphor, or merely an idea. But, whatever it is, it is really a cipher, a stand-in, for... us, the audience. The protagonist is the carrier of the meaning to be gained from the story. So, the transformation (or non-transformation despite the need for it) of the protagonist (and, so, the audience), is the mechanism of gaining that meaning. While the protagonist does not have to transform, the engaged audience’s understanding must, in order to have a successful story.

With that said, we can consider several examples of confusion about structure that continue to fog its understanding. Lots of screenwriters and theorists have weighed in on the whole three-act controversy. In almost every case, they exhibit an amazing lack of, or mis-understanding of story structure. Many current working screenwriters and directors see film structure as plot, all plot, and nothing but the plot.

Then, some of them - the so-called progressive ones - rebel at any view that assembles it in three parts. Why? Reasons are hard to come by, other than to question three-part structure because it’s there. They cite reasons like “It’s evil!” or “It’s part of the establishment,” as though it came in with Ronald Reagan after being invented by Richard Nixon, and must be stamped out. Some even dispute three-part structure because, they say, it’s not there. Some urge aspiring screenwriters to avoid reading screenwriting books, ostensibly because these new screenwriters already have such structure (to their detriment) “deeply ingrained” in them. The naysayers feel that in order to write “new movies” one must “fight” the tendency to repeat what has worked for earlier writers: “Don’t read [screenwriting books]!” Perhaps, like good Germans, they should burn them.


In Screenwriters’ Masterclass, Edited by Kevin Conroy Scott, Faber & Faber, 2005, p. 133, screenwriter and director, Darren Aronofsky said,

“I was aware enough to know those Syd Field books were evil. I was always antiestablishment enough to resist those. And I sort of developed a process which is the first job of trying to identify a three-act structure, which I do believe in. (my italics) I’d love to see if there’s anything beyond the three-act structure but I think it works very well as a narrative structure of a film.”

So, in the name of being “antiestablishment” he falls into the (can it be described any other way?) - reactionary - response to Field (and his progressively-motivated paradigm) that developed within the screenwriting establishment over time. Yet, remaining uninformed (for self-protection?), and so, unaware, he prefers and uses Field’s own structural approach. There’s something here very reminiscent (in its anti-intellectual stance) of people like Cambodia’s Pol Pot and China’s Red Guard: burn the books, kill the thinkers! And he longs for something “beyond the three-act structure.” We’ve shown that it is all around him and he just cannot see it.

Or, try this:

In the same book (Screenwriters’ Masterclass, p. 238), writer-director Alexander Payne comments,

“When I give screenwriting seminars or classes and they ask me, ‘What advice do you have for young screenwriters?’, I say, ‘Don’t read any screenwriting books.’ I actually think the whole three-act structure is so deeply ingrained in us from living in this culture and watching movies, that in order to come up with new movies, which is what I want to see, you really have to fight what you have innately learned. When you’re writing, you will find yourself being drawn naturally by gravity into doing something which corresponds to all of these things that you have seen. You have to fight that instinct in order to come up with a new movie.”

This strikes me as suggestive of a deep-seated loathing for movies, and a desire to re-make them either for reasons of ego or the wielding of power for power’s sake. There’s a reason movies are usually told in three distinct parts. They’re the smallest group of components to clearly get across an idea. Payne can “fight” the logic of three-act surface-level structure as the most common of the structures available, or he can recognize that multi-level structure frees him to (as scores of other filmmakers have practiced already): craft his story using his surface structure of choice. Should he ever investigate three-part structure, he will find it isn’t limited to our western culture, but, rather, it is the primary structure of human communication and meaning. We see it in the syllogism (major premise, minor premise, conclusion), the dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis), jokes (set-up, delivery, punch-line). Hell, it’s even in baseball! Long after his new movies are trashed, unsold, from the Wal-Mart sale bin, three-part stories will continue to be told.

Payne again, interviewed in SPLICEDwire on April 16, 1999, commented:

“There's a strong tendency right now toward formula. Like this is how a screenplay is written: By page 30 this has to happen, your Act Two goes to page 90...That's just horse sh--. I think a badly crafted, great idea for a new film with a ton of spelling mistakes is just 100 times better than a well-crafted stale script.

“For example, Scorsese talks not about three acts in a script, but rather five sequences. Or you watch Fellini films -- you watch Nights of Cabiria or La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 -- and you get a sense not of a three act structure, but of episodes with (one) character going through all these episodes. Then you get to the end of the film and there's a sudden realization or a moment that pulls a loose string suddenly taut through the whole movie you've been watching up until that point.

“(We need) different mental models of what a film can be, and if you pay too much attention to these books, by Syd Field and Robert McKee and I don't know who else, they're only presenting one cultural paradigm, and that's really, really dangerous to the act of creation and to our cinema, which needs new ideas and new blood now more than ever. Hollywood films have become a cesspool of formula and it's up to us to try to change it.

“(Suddenly laughs out loud.) I feel like a preacher!”

These professionals are apparently sufficiently disconnected from the body of popular films out there to be unaware that even the Hollywood film establishment has been using whatever-the-hell structure it wanted since before Syd Field was born. We’ve shown examples of popular films that are not in the classic Syd Field-notion of three acts: All That Jazz, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Wild Things, to name three. But there are others.

Okay, you’ve seen me analyze the ten films Alex Epstein claimed defied three-act structure. Eight of them were, in fact, three-act surface-level structure and three-part deeper, logical-level structure. Two of them were three-part logical-level structure while being something else on the surface. So, it’s final exam time. Here are ten more films. If anyone’s out there who is up to a challenge, try this. What’s the multi-level structure of Orson Welles and Herman Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane? Or Welles’s Chimes at Midnight? Let’s try William Cameron Menzies’ Things to Come? How about Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho? Or these: The Sting; A Chorus Line; Everything You Always wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask; Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb; Groundhog Day; M*A*S*H. No complaints about any titles being too hard to find: I’ll forgive you two titles; just analyze eight of them. And don’t assume they’re all chosen because they’re not three-act on the surface level. If anyone responds, we’ll address it in a future post.


Twenty-three years ago, in Making A Good Script Great, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1987, p. 4, Linda Seger wrote:

“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.”

While, for some of these professionals, this may be too much information, as we see, it isn't new.

For those interested, I found this explanation of Shakespeare's structural approach for The Taming Of The Shrew:

“Shakespeare usually followed a standard Elizabethan Five-Act Play format when he wrote. In this format, the first act served as the introduction of plot, characters, and scene/setting. The second act contained rising action: those events leading up to the conflict (in a tragedy) or climax (in a comedy). The third act was the conflict/climax; this act represents a turn in power for our central character (described later). The fourth act is falling action: those events leading our central character from that conflict/climax to his or her resolution. And, of course, act five is resolution: what happens to our characters in relation to the plot. Those five acts are all joined by a central character who needs to be intricately involved in all five acts and their specific purposes.”

“With that in mind, Kate is most likely our central character in The Taming of the Shrew (although an argument could be made for Petruchio also). Kate, her shrewishness, and the reason for Baptisa forcing her marriage are introduced to us in Act One (introduction). We see Petruchio meet her as a suitor and his early attempts at "wooing" her for a potential marriage (rising action). In Act three, she is married to Petruchio, and they immediately leave for Petruchio's home (climax, and the change in power from Kate to Petruchio). In Act four, the taming process is in full effect as Petruchio withholds sleep and food among other acts that Kate must accept (falling action). And if Act Five, as the bet reveals to us, Kate is tamed (resolution).”

If one asks, as we suggest, "whose story is it?" we see that it is Kate's, not Petruchio's. Why? Because she embodies the change or transformation. So while one might argue for Petruchio being the protagonist, it is really Kate.

Ring Lardner, Jr., in his interview with Pat McGilligan and Barry Strugatz in Backstory 3, pp. 223-4, describing the differences between the source book and the movie of M*A*S*H:

“I took some of the main incidents, invented a couple more, and organized them into a continuity that I thought would work, even though it violated the cardinal rule that a story involves a change of character in one or more of the principals (italics, mine). In my adaptation, the main characters were all the same all the way through, and the illusion of a story had to be sustained by the action and the comedy.”

Lardner’s comment, by a writer from Hollywood’s golden age, before today’s screenwriting priesthood conceived and imposed its “rules,” is interesting. His reference to “one or more of the principals” (rather than the protagonist) implies that as he comes out of a generation of writers who wrote out of instinct and inspiration, rather than any training they received in film school, his understanding of story is similarly instinctive.

Today’s screenwriting establishment tends to think of all of its rules as formalized and in place from “time immemorial,” i.e., known, understood, and practiced by its masters from that golden age. In truth, our understanding of how stories work is still emerging. The thing even Lardner doesn’t recognize is that the “change” he claims doesn’t happen, actually does. It occurs in the audience’s mind based on the experience undergone by the protagonist: the entire M.A.S.H group of characters, and, like Catch-22 before it, it is a realization through the group’s experience of the absurdity of war - later crystallized for the broader television audience in the tv series, embodied by Jamie Farr’s character of Klinger.

So, lest we are also lumped into Alexander Payne’s “one cultural paradigm” crowd, perhaps we should re-state that we, here, see these “paradigms” (how what happens in a story happens) all operating at the surface level. Therefore, we support all, rather than one, of the many successful narrative paradigms. Story meaning (what one [the protagonist and the audience], thinks about what happens), on the other hand, operates primarily at deeper levels, and therefore can be communicated through any such paradigms. So we advocate many approaches to narrative, as determined by the teller, the story, and its success with its audience.

Payne’s charge that screenwriting books are “dangerous to the act of creation” is precisely why we need to be able to account for multiple approaches to structure. If new writers limit their exploration of the literature to only one or two of the known “paradigms” (e.g., Syd Field or Christopher Vogler), they come away believing they understand their craft, only to later discover some of the films we’ve identified above. They then reject such structures – or even, as with Epstein, any structures - rather than enlarging their view of what story structure can be.

The multi-level view makes it possible to use any of the various operating surface structures while maintaining the three-part deep structure when assessing film stories. It even allows for new ones. And that makes it the most nurturing approach available to creative story-tellers.

So, what’s the story? No, who’s the story! I dunno. Third base! Epstein? He’s our shortstop, and... he “don’t give a damn!” #


Lee A. Matthias

Postscript - This, then, concludes what I have to say about narrative film story structure. I invite reader comments and/or questions. I am willing to prepare a single, albeit lengthy, document of all nine of the posts, combined, should anyone want a copy emailed to them for reference. Let me know at the address accessible from my bio page. Thanks for staying with me through these posts.