From Hairdressing to the Fall of the Roman Empire

‘Process’ in Storytelling

If you’re a screenwriter, one questions you’ll always find yourself asking is “what gives my story structure?” What is it that keeps the audience engaged as they watch and then provides a pleasing sense of closure? Traditional Hollywood script gurus will point you to The Hero’s Journey. According to this model, the protagonist develops an objective, pursues that objective, and – after overcoming a number of obstacles, both external and internal – they prevail. This account of structure works well for some, but by no means all, stories. Other theorists will point you to character arcs, where the story is defined by personal change, rather than personal achievement. I’d like to offer a third approach to story structure, one less bound to a single protagonist : process.

I went to a film school that was strong on documentary. One of the exercises they gave us was to film ‘a process’. The result wasn’t meant to have any great meaning; we just had to show people doing a thing and capture all the stages of that process. The group I was in chose a haircut. We filmed the lady arriving at the salon, being shown to the chair, giving her instructions, the hair wash, the cut, &c.  This exercise has stayed with me long after many others that I have forgotten, because it demonstrated the simple pleasure of watching a thing happen. Many movies have celebrated this pleasure in a scene, whether it be showing us a barn being raised in Witness or the process of Civil War enlistment in The Gangs of New York.

Notice that Scorsese doesn’t have us follow a single protagonist through all the stages of this process, he skips us down the line.

However, process can be used on a more macro level – the story itself can be seen as a process. For example, Eric Heisserer said in an interview recently that his screenplay for Arrival is “all about process” – the process of trying to communicate with an alien civilization. That’s what keeps us watching.

Decoding alien language in ‘Arrival’

The virtue of a process is that it gives us a sequence of events that we either already know or that we can anticipate. This means that we know where we are in the progress of the story and will have a sense of when it’s drawing to a close. Don’t underestimate the virtue of giving the audience this sort of roadmap. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of watching a film with great characters, dramatic scenes and engaging ideas, but have still found ourselves thinking “this is all very well, but where’s this going?!” No amount of quality will save a story that wanders for too long with no apparent objective. Apart from anything else the question “where is this going?” leads straight to “…and for how much longer?” This is how 90 minute films can feel 3 hours long.

While giving the audience a roadmap to the story might not sound like it’s going to leave room for surprises, it doesn’t mean that unexpected things can’t happen along the way. Indeed they must. You can knock your characters as far off course as you like, as long as they keep sight of the original objective.

In practice, the process can sometimes be closely aligned to a ‘Hero’s Journey’ story: The Day of the Jackal shows us the process through which an assassin would go to attempt to murder a head of state – that murder is also the protagonist’s objective.

Process is also useful in thinking about the structure of ensemble stories. What provides the structure of most heist movies or wartime mission movies? The process of breaking into a casino or blowing up a dam. The ‘Let’s put on a show’ genre – The Full Monty, Topsy Turvy, Bowfinger, &c. – is another example where the process holds together the personal stories of multiple characters. The characters could be cardboard cut-outs, but the process of watching a group of people being briefed, setting out, enacting the plan, overcoming obstacles and prevailing, would still keep us at least moderately engaged. 

Process is also particularly useful when considering epic storytelling. Epics usually have many characters with divergent objectives; often there is no clear protagonist, or, if there is, we spend less time with them than we do in more conventional ‘Hero’s Journey’ stories, because time has to be given to the side plots. Here it is often a process that holds the story together, whether it be the process of staging a slaves’ revolt in ancient Rome or charting the rise of a Mafia family over the course of The Godfather films.

TV and streaming series are making excellent use of process in their storytelling, whether it be tracking how royalty is preserved in the 20th century in The Crown or in Succession the process by which a replacement is found for an ageing media tycoon. Again, there are many key players heading in many different directions, but focus on the overarching process helps to keep the whole thing together. A case in point: the recent BBC drama The Trial of Christine Keeler. Christine, Mandy and Jack all have their different story-lines going on; to say that Christine is the protagonist would be somehow missing the point. The story is very clearly not one person’s story – it’s the story of a thing, of a scandal. We see the stories of the various players, but the process of the scandal is the thing that unites the series and gives it shape.

I don’t seek to make a case that process is an essential part of all stories. I merely offer it as another way of lending form to your screenplays, and of escaping the predictability of the single-protagonist Hero’s Journey shape. The process narrative is a different experience for the audience. It can be a cool, detached experience like with The Big Short or The Day of the Jackal where we have a God’s eye view, or it can be a warmer tale like The Full Monty or The Great Escape that shows what people can achieve when they work together. Either way, process is an invaluable tool to carry with you as a storyteller.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2020

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

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