Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Paul Schrader’s Structure: Before Syd Field, Gustav Freytag

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.



PAUL SCHRADER reaches up to a SHELF and pulls an old BOOK down.

At a TABLE, he blows off the dust, carefully opens the book, and peers inside.

Technique of the Drama:
An Exposition of Dramatic
Composition and Art

Gustav Freytag


Schrader sits at his typewriter, typing furiously.

SYD FIELD finds the Freytag book and pulls it down.

Field puts the book in a completely different part of the library, a deserted SECTION that looks like it has never been visited. Then, looking around to see if he’s been seen, he hurries away.

GUSTAV FREYTAG, at a table in a cold, ancient ROOM, opens a
BOOK that appears older than the first printing press.


The Poetics


335 B.C.

Freytag looks around and then slips the book into his
jacket. He stands, looking about, then walks away.


On display is the new book by Syd Field.

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting
A long-haired, young FILM STUDENT wearing a UCLA BASEBALL CAP, bill forward, and carrying a 16MM BOLEX CAMERA picks up a copy and ponders it.

Before them all was Aristotle. But before Syd Field, in Germany, in 1863, Gustav Freytag (Freytag, Gustav, Technique of the Drama, refined the work done by Aristotle to such an extent that Field had almost nothing to do in order to write his influential first book on screenwriting. Whether he knew of Freytag’s work is open to conjecture. But it is certainly clear that his “paradigm” is remarkably similar to “Freytag’s Triangle” (or, as some refer to it, “Freytag’s Pyramid”):

Other depictions of Gustav Freytag’s model include this one:

And this one:

Freytag's Pyramid

1. Exposition: setting the scene. The writer introduces the characters and setting, providing description and background.

2. Inciting Incident: something happens to begin the action. A single event usually signals the beginning of the main conflict. The inciting incident is sometimes called 'the complication'.

3. Rising Action: the story builds and gets more exciting.

4. Climax: the moment of greatest tension in a story. This is often the most exciting event. It is the event that the rising action builds up to and that the falling action follows.

5. Falling Action: events happen as a result of the climax and we know that the story will soon end.

6. Resolution: the character solves the main problem/conflict or someone solves it for him or her.

7. Dénouement: (a French term, pronounced: day-noo-moh) the ending. At this point, any remaining secrets, questions or mysteries which remain after the resolution are solved by the characters or explained by the author. Sometimes the author leaves us to think about the THEME or future possibilities for the characters.

You can think of the dénouement as the opposite of the exposition: instead of getting ready to tell us the story by introducing the setting and characters, the author is getting ready to end it with a final explanation of what actually happened and how the characters think or feel about it. This can be the most difficult part of the plot to identify, as it is often very closely tied to the resolution.

It is interesting to see how these structures have emerged. Despite the opening Slug Scene, I am not arguing that Field stole from Freytag. Nonetheless, the similarities cannot be denied. One has to wonder a bit how Field developed his ideas.

But even as Freytag developed his structural model intended as a model describing not contemporary (for Freytag), but Shakespearean and classical Greek plays, among others, another, distinctly Asian counterpart, was already long in place:


Jo-ha-kyū (序破急) is a concept of modulation and movement applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts. Roughly translated to "beginning, break, rapid", it essentially means that all actions or efforts should begin slowly, speed up, and then end swiftly. This concept is applied to elements of the Japanese tea ceremony, to kendō and other martial arts, to the traditional theatre, and to the traditional collaborative linked verse forms renga and renku (haikai no renga).

The concept originated in gagaku court music, specifically in the ways in which elements of the music could be distinguished and described. Though eventually incorporated into a number of disciplines, it was most famously adapted, and thoroughly analyzed and discussed by the great Noh playwright Zeami[1], who viewed it as a universal concept applying to the patterns of movement of all things.

It is perhaps in the theatre that jo-ha-kyū is used the most extensively, on the most levels. In following with the writings of Zeami, all major forms of Japanese traditional drama (Noh, kabuki, and jōruri) utilize the concept of jo-ha-kyū in the choice and arrangement of plays across a day, to the composition and pacing of acts within a play, down to the individual actions of the actors.

Zeami, in his work "Sandō" (The Three Paths), originally described a five-part (five dan) Noh play as the ideal form. It begins slowly and auspiciously in the first part (jo), building up the drama and tension in the second, third, and fourth parts (ha), with the greatest climax in the third dan, and rapidly concluding with a return to peace and auspiciousness in the fifth dan (kyū).[2]

This same conception was later adapted into jōruri and kabuki, where the plays are often arranged into five acts according to the same rationales. Takemoto Gidayū, the great jōruri chanter, was the first to describe the patterns or logic behind the five acts, which parallel as well the five categories of Noh which would be performed across a day.[3]

He described the first act as "Love"; the play opens auspiciously, using gentle themes and pleasant music to draw in the attention of the audience. The second act is described as "Warriors and Battles" (shura). Though it need not contain actual battle, it is generally typified by heightened tempo and intensity of plot. The third act, the climax of the entire play, is typified by pathos and tragedy. The plot achieves its dramatic climax. Takemoto describes the fourth act as a michiyuki (journey), which eases out of the intense drama of the climactic act, and often consists primarily of song and dance rather than dialogue and plot. The fifth act, then, is a rapid conclusion. All loose ends are tied up, and the play returns to an auspicious setting. [3]

So there has been a lot of work underpinning what we now call story structure. It is interesting, then, to note that when Paul Schrader wrote his first script, seven or eight years before the appearance of Syd Field’s first book laying out his paradigm, Schrader used Gustav Freytag’s approach to story structure:

I taught myself to write it (his first screenplay, Pipeliner) very schematically. I’d never written anything (fiction: screenplays, short stories, novels, plays) before and I said, well, it’s ninety minutes long. I used Freytag’s triangle—inciting incident, rising action, climax, dénouement; it has to have these elements, as well as subplots, and certain characters revealing certain themes. There should always be a rising curve; when I lay on my curves, each character having a curve, one will always be rising. When one starts to fall, another character starts to rise, and the most interesting rising characters all meet at the climax. It was the most practical, calculated way of seeing a dramatic structure. There was a personal element, writing about things I knew.

From Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976, Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson, January 26 and 29, 1976.

And, of course, parallel to Schrader, Field, and Freytag, Joseph Campbell and his work on world myth was influencing George Lucas as he began developing Star Wars. And that, in turn influenced Christopher Vogler when he adapted Campbell’s ideas for screenwriting in The Writer’s Journey.  Then, along came John Truby, and, Dara Marks, and… well, you get the idea. # 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post:
“Screenplays are structure,” [emphasis, The Last Reveal]
---William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade

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