The raw ingredients of a story ☛
“Not rules, principles. McKee writes that a rule says you must do it this way. A principle says, this works and has through all remembered time.” – from ‘Adaptation’, Charlie Kaufmann
I recently attended a talk given by John Yorke at the BBC Drama Writers’ Festival where he claimed that all stories have essentially the same shape. He showed a table, which eloquently demonstrated that pretty much every act structure ever proposed hits the same five points. It was an elegant argument, but as he spoke I felt the buckles of a straight-jacket being pulled a notch tighter.
I’ve always been sceptical about the usefulness of act structure to screenwriters. It is a reliable tool for creating a pleasing shape… but so is a cookie-cutter. If, as Syd Field proposes, the first plot point must happen on page/minute 25, we might as well take a stopwatch to the cinema.
Screenplay structure can be this simple…
The problem with Yorke’s theory, that suggested in the quote about McKee and indeed the theories of all story tzars is they emerge from a process of reverse engineering. The guru has looked at existing stories that have worked “through all remembered time”, taken them apart and found what makes them tick. This strategy has produced great insights, but it is innately conservative. All stories designed this way will inevitably stay within the parameters of the existing stories that the guru considers to be great. The shock of the new does not this way lie.
Many of us are keen to find other ways to tell stories.
But throw these structures aside and don’t we cast ourselves adrift in the ocean of our imagination, with no compass but our instincts? Many screenwriters would be happy to do this, and it does sound very pioneering. However, for every Eraserhead, 2001: a Space Odyssey and Mirror there are a dozen scripts that aspire to maverick unconventionality but are wandering, incoherent and dull. Few of these ever make it to the big screen. It’s not the case that anything goes.
3-Acts, 5-acts, 22 steps, and any other theory of structure you care to name, work because they meet desires and expectations that every audience shares. But either they define those desires and expectations in a narrow way, or provide too predictable a method for addressing them. Why don’t we look deeper and identify the source code: the basic needs the audience has of a story? Let’s engineer forwards.
I propose the following criteria: the starting point for a theory, rather than the finished thing. They are only meant to apply to feature-length big-screen stories. Many of them will hold true for continuing TV drama, novels and plays – but the different circumstances in which we encounter a story do affect what we ask of it. So here goes…
A story must feel like it’s going somewhere. Where that is doesn’t need to remain the same throughout the tale: the objective can alter, more than once if necessary. If, however, we take too long setting up an objective, lose sight of it, or even reach it and continue the story without providing a new objective, the audience will get restless. The medium of cinema requires the continuous and undivided attention of an audience for an hour and a half; without a sense of trajectory they soon wonder “where is this going?” Then they start taking sneaky looks at their iPhones.
There can be a period at the start of the tale during which there’s no forward movement; characters and situations need to be set up. However, once the ball has been set rolling – the inciting incident, if you must – it needs to continue to roll. This may sound relentless, but there are ways of allowing the audience a breather. Maybe the characters have to wait: their objective can’t be achieved until sunrise or sunset. Or perhaps the characters are on a train heading toward their objective and have time to flirt or shoot the breeze until they reach their destination. As long as the objective is alive in the character/s, all is well.
But an objective is not the only way of creating a trajectory. Some filmmakers have found alternative structural devices to do the job. Francois Girard used the title of his film Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould to suggest that there would be no overall objective to the movie, merely a given number of units – we know that at the end of the 32nd film the movie will be over. In his early short films, Peter Greenaway played around with similar basic ‘narratives’ – like the numbers one to ten or the alphabet – both to give a sense of forward movement and to give us a sense of how far through the piece we are.
Without a clear shape any story becomes dull, samey. We need moments of heightened dramatic intensity in some places; in others we need lulls in the action. While most gurus demand a complex web of acts, steps, plot points, turning points and mid-points, I offer just one compulsory dramatic moment: the climax.
The climax is where the drama is at its most intense (you knew that). It will inevitably have to come pretty near the end, otherwise the story will feel like it gradually peters out in an unsatisfying manner. It is at the climax that the dramatic problems of the story are resolved.
Most stories benefit from multiple dramatic peaks and troughs, turns and surprises on the way to the climax. However I don’t believe that there is any universal rule as to where these should come; their frequency, intensity and placement will depend on style, subject matter and personal judgement. All I can say is, aside from a beginning and an end, the climax is the one dramatic point that all stories share in common.
No amount of intricate plotting, pacy action or relentlessly ticking time-bombs will mean anything if we don’t care about the outcome (as anyone who’s ever seen a Transformers movie will testify). The storyteller needs to find some way of making the audience want to know what happens next.
In most good stories this is achieved by drawing the audience in emotionally, and the best way to achieve that is usually to get us to love at least one of the characters.
Let me clarify: I don’t think it’s necessary for us to ‘like’ the character, although it doesn’t hurt. We need to be drawn involuntarily to the character, sometimes against our own better judgement. What matters to them matters to us, even if they want to drag a ship up a mountain. Where they go, we will follow, regardless of the danger. Persuading an audience to ‘love’ a fictional character who only exists for 90 minutes is a big ask, but those are the breaks.
Engagement through mystery… ‘The Usual Suspects’
However emotion is not the only way to keep the audience hooked. Audiences can also be engaged intellectually. I’m not just talking about art house goatee-scratchers like Last Year in Marienbad: any form of mystery, if it’s strong enough, can keep us glued to the screen. It could be a murder mystery plot or any enigmatic genre-piece where we don’t know quite who to trust or what to believe: The Usual Suspects, Memento and Exam are all good examples of this. They keep us engaged until the end as we try to resolve the Rubik’s cube of a plot they handed us.
These three requirements all help to keep the audience’s attention and stave off boredom. There is a fourth, however, which speaks to the impression the viewer takes with them when they leave the cinema:
This is possibly the most enigmatic and difficult element of storytelling. It is like the key signature in music: it makes the piece feel like one coherent whole. Without it, we come away asking “what was that all about?” or just “so what?”
In my experience, this is the element of storytelling of which screenwriters are the most wary. Independent screenwriters will tell you that they have no desire to preach; they want the audience to decide what the story means to them. While commercially-minded writers will say “I’m writing a zombie movie, not ‘War and Peace’; why does it have to mean something?”
My answer to both is that without a theme the script will either feel fuzzy or hollow and pointless. This is not to say that the story needs a finger–wagging message, about which the independent filmmaker is anxious; it’s okay to discuss a theme without coming to a set conclusion. Conversely the theme doesn’t have to be high-minded and complex, as the commercial filmmaker fears; it can be as simple as “we need to be prepared to fight to defend our values / country / family”.
Rules are made to be broken, and these are no exception. There are many other things a story needs that don’t fall under these grand headings. However, if we are to reinvent cinematic storytelling or even just to refresh it, I think it pays to work out what we really need to makes a story sing. Otherwise we just continue mimicking the way it’s always been done through all remembered time.
Hopefully this perspective may provoke you to question your preconceptions about storytelling. I’d like to spark an open debate about what really makes a great story. I look forward to hearing from you…
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge
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